What the Amazon Rainforest Fires Say About Our Food Choices

Food System
Aug 28th, 2019 | By Amy Leibrock

If you aren’t buying food from a source you know and trust, you’re fueling demand from “somewhere else.” In our global economy, it’s not easy to find out where that somewhere else is or what the implications of fueling that demand are. This week, it’s on full display as we watch images of smoke and flames rising from the Amazon rainforest.

Many of the fires in the rainforest in Brazil are reportedly being intentionally started to clear the way for agriculture and logging activities. This is not a new practice, but an increase in fires so far this year in the Amazon is alarming environmentalists around the world. The number of fires is up by 85% over 2018.

According to reporting from the BBC, the fires have released the equivalent of 228 megatonnes of carbon dioxide so far this year. That’s equivalent to burning 3 million tanker trucks full of gasoline or adding 48 million cars to the roads for a year.

The Amazon rainforest is critical to absorbing carbon emissions. When parts of it burn, that carbon sink capacity diminishes and the carbon those trees were storing is released back into the atmosphere. It has implications for climate change, and it also affects the immediate health of the people living closer to the fires.

These numbers indicate that despite the work of many groups to protect the rainforests, deforestation is intensifying. Many blame Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro who has rolled back environmental protections, encouraging destructive expansion of agricultural production.


If you care about this issue, there are several actions that experts are recommending. One of those is to “eat less beef.” Brazil exports more beef than any country in the world, and 80% of the Amazon’s deforestation is attributed to beef production.

One the surface, this tip sounds too simplistic. Wouldn’t “eat less beef from Brazil” be a better recommendation? If only it were that easy.

The U.S. actually halted imports of fresh and frozen beef from Brazil in 2017 over concerns about processing conditions and corruption in the industry. However, we still import cooked or processed beef from the country, which ends up in products like corned beef and beef jerky. The Trump administration signaled in March that fresh imports may resume soon pending new USDA inspections.

If imports of Brazilian beef resume, it will still be difficult for the concerned consumer to easily avoid buying it. Once fresh or frozen beef from Brazil — or any other country — is imported, butchered and packaged, retailers are allowed to label it “Product of USA” thanks to the lifting of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef and pork in 2015. That beef will also end up in fast food hamburgers and hot dogs without any easy traceability.

In lieu of any real transparency, “Eat less beef” is starting to sound like the best way to put it — unless you know for sure who produced your beef or can buy from a butcher who can tell you.


The fires in the Amazon may be putting the spotlight beef, as well as other exports from Brazil (coffee, soybeans, sugar cane, timber), right now, but it’s just one example of how global supply chains obscure the impacts of our food decisions. Coffee, cocoa, avocados, palm oil, and soy, are just some of the many crops that are causing environmental or humanitarian issues in areas around the world.

The message behind simple tips like “eat less beef” should be less about dictating what not to eat and more about making informed, responsible choices about what you eat. Buying local food, joining a CSA, finding trustworthy third-party certifications, and demanding more transparency from food producers are all things we must do to make planet-friendly food choices.


To learn more about how deforestation is connected to the food supply, check out these resources:

Rainforest Alliance
Rainforest Action Network

You can also check out the America Grassfed Association and A Greener World to find sources of responsibly raised beef.

Tagged: food supply, deforestation, Amazon rainforest, climate change, Brazil, beef, carbon emissions, Country of Origin Labeling

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