A Global Health Dietitian On Why Eating Less Meat Won't Save The Amazon
When news of the Amazon rain forest fires broke, people, rightfully so, asked what could be done to help. Donating to relief organizations on the ground was an obvious first step. Then, as it became clear that much of the land was being intentionally burned to make way for cattle farms, another more long-term solution started to get tossed around: Eat less red meat.
While we'd never dream of knocking a plant-based diet, it turns out it's just not that simple. Megan Faletra, M.S., MPH, RDN, a global health dietitian who has a master's in public health and nutrition and has spent years traveling the world studying sustainable food systems, explains that the destruction we're seeing in the Amazon is indicative of problems that extend far beyond beef.
"We're only doing ourselves a disservice to look at it from that simple of a framework," she says. "People are talking about beef, but they should be equally talking about cocoa, sugar cane, chocolate, palm oil." The global hunger for these (meat-free) crops has long spurred deforestation across South America and Southeast Asia in particular; it's just been less publicized. So even if the whole world went vegan, undeveloped areas like the Amazon would probably still be at risk of clearing to make way for agriculture.
The fractured political and economic landscape of Brazil is also fueling these fires—another reason straightforward solutions are hard to come by. "When you're talking about food policy, unfortunately so much of that just comes from trade agreements and corporate interest and the policy trends of whatever administration is in power," says Faletra. While those may be largely out of the everyday person's control, there are things we can all do to help support a more transparent, equitable, and sustainable global food system. Here are four that Faletra recommends, beyond just eating less meat:
1. Advocate for regenerative agriculture.
Many large-scale farming practices deplete the soil and make it unsuitable for growing, which is part of the reason that farmers are in such a frenzy to find more land. Regenerative agriculture is an alternative type of growing that seeks to strengthen soil health and could, therefore, help us produce more food on the farms we already have. "When people are supporting regenerative agriculture, they're supporting a very biodynamic ecosystem," Faletra says. "You're really caring for the land in the way it should be cared for in the context of farming." While you won't find a "regeneratively grown" seal on food in your local grocery stores (yet!), getting to know the growers around you and asking about what they're doing to restore soil health is one way to support the relatively nascent regenerative movement. Which brings us to the next point…
2. Shop locally.
You've heard it before; you'll hear it again. Shopping locally, when possible, is one of the best ways to support a more transparent and equitable food system around the world. It cuts out supply chains, brings you closer to your food, and provides a lesson in seasonality.
3. If you can't get something locally, buy it from a company that is transparent about its supply chain.
"Today if you go to a company's website and they're not very clear about their supply chain and what they're doing to prevent these issues, that's something to be skeptical about," Faletra says. Once you do identify a company that is putting resources behind ensuring that its products are made in a way that is good for people and the planet (more on how to do that here), stick with them! Those are the brands that really deserve your loyalty.
4. Donate to organizations that advocate for farmers' rights (and not just when there's a crisis!).
While so much of the Amazon coverage has been focused on environmental damage, Faletra reminds us that there are huge human rights issues at play here too. As is the case in so many places around the world, the workers in the Amazon are paid low wages and don't have access to education on the damage that this type of clearing could have on the ecosystem in the long term. "These farmers are barely getting by. They're just thinking in the short term, and that's not their fault," she says.
Instead of waiting for the next crisis to hit, we would all be better off donating to organizations that are advocating for low-wage food production workers around the world on a recurring monthly schedule. Doing so can strengthen communities from the ground up and protect our planet in the long run. Because, as Faletra says, "The food system should support everyone—not just the person who's able to buy coffee at the supermarket."
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