Our climate is subject to many potential tipping points, where a small change in human activity can lead to abrupt and significant changes in earth systems, with catastrophic and irreversible impacts. Feedback mechanisms that form part of the process could lead to runaway climate change over which we will have little or no control.
Possible tipping points include :
- reduction in area and volume of Arctic sea ice;
- disintegration of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets;
- thawing permafrost (frozen soil) releasing methane and carbon dioxide;
- melting sub-sea hydrates also releasing methane;
- dieback of the Amazon rainforest.
This post considers the Amazon rainforest.
Although clearing for cattle pastures is the main driver of Amazon deforestation, feed production for the beef, poultry, pig meat and other sectors is also a critical factor.
A new perspective based on potential consequences
The comparative emissions intensity of various food products is often considered when reviewing their climate change impacts. Emissions intensity is a measure of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product, typically measured by weight. The emissions intensity of meat from ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep, is extremely high relative to most other food sources. Two key reasons are: methane emissions from the process of enteric fermentation in the animals’ digestive systems, releasing methane; and land clearing for pasture, releasing carbon dioxide.
Although the emissions intensity figures of chicken and pig meat are multiples of most plant-based products, they represent a small fraction of beef’s figure. Accordingly, chicken and pig meat have generally received less attention than beef in the context of climate change.
However, we are poised on the edge of a climate change precipice, where a relatively small step can mean disaster.  Feed production for the chicken and pig meat industries has the potential to be that step, with reduced consumption potentially being an essential measure in our efforts to overcome climate change. When there is little or no buffer for avoiding catastrophe, all methods of doing so must be addressed.
What is the problem with feed crops?
It could be argued that any agricultural plantation in the Amazon basin and elsewhere represents an environmental problem. That’s true, but the problem is magnified in regard to animal feed, due to the gross and inherent inefficiency of animals as a food source. The inefficiency is demonstrated by comparative feed conversion ratios of various livestock production systems, as shown in Figure 1. The researchers determined the figures by analysing between twenty-nine and eighty-three studies per item. 
Figure 1: Feed conversion ratios (kg feed protein required per kg of animal protein produced)
The inverse figures show relative efficiency of animal-based food production systems in converting plant-based feed proteins.
Figure 2: Feed protein conversion efficiency of livestock production systems
The inefficiencies mean that we require far more land and other resources than would be required if we utilised plant-based sources directly for our nutritional requirements. Although a cow raised for meat will generally eat far more grass than grain, the problem of extensive land use remains, with forests cleared for pasture, natural grasslands degraded, and carbon released from soil through erosion.
The Amazon tipping point
Even without land clearing for agriculture and other purposes, due to a persistent El Nino state leading to drying over much of the Amazon basin, its rainforest is predicted to die if temperatures reach 3°C -4°C above pre-industrial levels. In its natural state, much of the precipitation in the Amazon is recycled, but such recycling would reduce significantly at that temperature range, contributing to the permanent loss of rainforest. 
Does this mean we can save the Amazon rainforest if we keep temperatures below that range?
Not necessarily. Quite apart from a general increase in temperatures and the fact that levels below 2°C could trigger feedbacks leading to higher temperatures, we are pushing the rainforest toward a critical tipping point, largely arising from excessive fragmentation. Such fragmentation can lead to general drying and an increased propensity for fires and other causes of loss. Studies published in late 2014 and early 2015 documented the extremely adverse long-term effects of forest fragmentation, including carbon losses far in excess of what was previously believed. Much of the fragmentation arises from agriculture, including livestock feed crops.  
Growth in livestock and related feed crop production
More than 85 percent of global soybean production is used in livestock feed. The figures for wheat are 20 percent, and corn 50 percent. 
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is predicting an increase of 64 percent in global meat consumption between 2010 and 2050, with chicken and pig meat leading the way. 
Much of the increase is coming from China, which produces 50 percent of the world’s pig meat (from a pig population of 482 million), and 20 percent of poultry meat (primarily from a chicken population of 4.835 billion).
The projected increases maintain the trends of the past twenty years, as shown in Figure 3, and the increase in soybean production shown in Figure 4.  Global soy production has grown tenfold in the past fifty years, and has been instrumental in enabling low cost meat and dairy production. 
Figure 3: Global chicken and pig meat production 1993-2013 (kilotonnes)
Figure 4: Global soy bean production 1993-2013 (kilotonnes)
Brazil’s share of global soybean production increased from 22.6 percent in 1994/95 (equal to 43 percent of USA production) to 31.6 percent in 2012/13 (on par with USA at around 82 million tonnes). Its production more than tripled in that time, while global production more than doubled. 
China liberalised its soy imports in the mid-1990s, and by 2005 was importing half the world’s traded soybeans, with rapid acceleration since then. Figure 5 depicts growth in imports for part of that period. 
Figure 5: Soybean Production, Consumption and Imports in China 1964-2011
Two-thirds of the demand for Brazilian soy comes from China and the European Union.  In May, 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture was estimating that China’s soy bean imports for 2014/15 would be 72 million tonnes. The second-ranked importer was the European Union, with 12.5 million tonnes. With domestic production of 12 million tonnes, China’s total consumption was 84 million tonnes, up from approximately 70 million tonnes in 2011 (including imports of 59 million tonnes that year). 
The problem is exacerbated by the relatively high proportion of soybean meal in Chinese pig feed (estimated at 20-30 percent) and chicken feed (25-40 percent). 
There are signs that China may also liberalise corn imports, rather than maintaining its historic target of 95 percent self-sufficiency. In 2011, Morgan Stanley estimated that around 70 percent of the country’s corn production was used in animal feed, 5 percent in food for the human population, and the balance for industrial purposes.  The crop is far more water and nutrient intensive than soy, so any expansion of imports could have major implications for producing nations, including Brazil. 
The Amazon soy moratorium and other measures are failing
In 2006, various producers commenced a soy moratorium, whereby they committed to avoid trading soy from areas within the Amazon that had been cleared after 24th June that year. Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment joined the moratorium in 2009, and it has been endorsed by major retailers. Safeguards are supposedly strengthened by the fact that Brazil also has strong logging regulations, and requires large land owners in the Amazon to maintain at least 50 percent of their holdings in native forest.
The moratorium is due to expire in May, 2016, by which time the industry argues that Brazil’s environmental governance will be robust enough to justify concluding it.  However, there is strong evidence to the contrary, including a recent doubling in the rate of deforestation.
Here are some of the problems described by journalist Richard Schiffman after consulting with (amongst others) Dr Philip Fearnside, a Research Professor in the Department of Ecology at Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) , :
- There is a lack of enforcement and a climate of impunity. For example, only around 1 percent of fines imposed by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) are collected. The agency is under-funded and under-staffed.
- The practice of timber laundering is widespread, whereby trees are illegally harvested and given clean documentation to facilitate their sale.
- There is a high degree of legal ambiguity in land title, which assists illegal deforestation operators seeking to avoid detection.
- Farmers routinely remove rainforest in order to plant crops such as rice and corn (which are not subject to the moratorium) for a short period, and then gradually change to soy.
- President Dilma Rousseff, despite pledging zero tolerance for deforestation, has aligned herself with the so-called ruralistic bloc, a coalition of wealthy farmers and agribusiness organisations that helped re-write land-use laws in their own favour.
- Rousseff appointed Katia Abreu, a former rancher and head of Brazil’s Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, as minister for agriculture. Abreu has been nick-named the “chain saw queen” by environmentalists. She has complained that environmentalists and the indigenous population have been thwarting progress.
- Rousseff has also appointed Aldo Rebelo as the minister for science. He has said that talk of global warming is “scientism”, not science. He claims it is a tool used by Western imperialists to control poor nations.
- The Forest Code was introduced in 2012, which removed crucial aspects of rainforest protection and provided an amnesty for those who violated environmental laws prior to 2008. There is now an expectation of future amnesties for others who clear illegally.
- A new highway is planned to run from the city of Manaus through the heart of the Amazon to the so-called “arc of deforestation” in the south, which has been largely cleared for soy plantations. Roads provide access and act as a catalyst for further deforestation.
- The eventual completion of dozens of new dams (which represent a significant problem in their own right) and the Sao Luiz do Tapajos hydroelectric project will result in unemployed construction workers settling in the hinterland and clearing rainforest for farms.
The problems are exacerbated by warming conditions arising from El Nino and the Atlantic Dipole.
El Nino leads to drying, mainly in the northern Amazon, and greatly increases the likelihood of forest fires, as occurred in 1982, 1997 and 2006, compared to only four major fires in the previous 2,000 years. El Nino conditions have again been developing during 2015. 
Whereas El Nino is caused by surface water warming in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Dipole is a warm area of water in the North Atlantic, affecting south-western areas of the Amazon, including droughts in those areas in 2005 and 2010.
Globally, according to a 2015 study by researchers based at the University of Maryland, the rate of tropical deforestation increased by 62 percent between the decades 1990-2000 and 2000-2010. The findings challenge a 2010 estimate from the FAO, which relied on self-reporting by relevant governments. The new estimate is based on Landsat satellite image data. It indicates that the largest increase occurred in tropical Latin America, with most clearing occurring in Brazil. 
The trend has continued, with Brazil’s rate of tree cover loss increasing by more than 16 percent between 2013 and 2014. 
Consumption in all countries contributes to the Amazon problem
Although China’s livestock sector is the major global consumer of traded soy products, consumption in any country contributes to the problem. In a country such as Australia, around 90 percent of the soy that is consumed is imported, mainly for intensive livestock feed.  The trade is global, and any demand pressure contributes to an increase in overall supply. Conversely, reduced demand from one country may reduce production in any other country, including those not holding the initial supply contract. The reason is that production capacity may be freed in the initial supplier nation, enhancing its ability to compete for alternative markets that are being supplied by competitor nations.
Accordingly, to the extent that livestock producers in a country such as Australia import soybeans from any nation, reduced Australian consumption can reduce soybean production in the Amazon. Reduced consumption of locally-produced soybeans by North American livestock producers can have the same effect.
China may be willing to act
China has recently announced major initiatives in dealing with fossil fuel emissions, and it has much to lose if other necessary mitigation measures are not adopted. Climate change author, David Spratt, has stated :
“Taken together with those on the neighbouring Tibetan plateau, the Himalayan-Hindu Kush glaciers represent the largest body of ice on the planet outside the polar regions, feeding Asia’s great river systems, including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He. The basins of these rivers are home to over a billion people from Pakistan to China. . . . In China, 23 per cent of the population lives in the western regions, where glacial melt provides the principal dry season water source. The implications of the loss of the Himalayan ice sheet are global and mind numbing, but such a calamity rarely rates a mention in Australia.”
Faced with this frightening reality, Chinese authorities may accept that a continued increase in the rate of meat consumption, with its adverse climate change impacts, will be extremely detrimental to the nation’s future.
Although this article has focused primarily on chicken products and pig meat, the problem is also relevant to the extent that soybean meal is used in other agricultural products, such as beef, dairy products, and farmed fish. All involve other serious environmental problems that are exacerbated by the inefficiencies and related scale of production involved.
By any measure of sound economic or environmental management, such inefficiencies should not be perpetuated, yet a collective blind spot seems to apply in respect of animal agriculture. It is time to face the reality of our dire predicament in relation to climate change, and accept the need for urgent, meaningful action.
Even in the absence of clear tipping points, climate feedback mechanisms create accelerating, non-linear changes, which are potentially irreversible.
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Main image: Aerial view of Amazon deforestation in Brazil © Phototreat | iStock.
Figure 5: Brown, L.R., op cit.