Amazonia, Deforestation, Feed Crops, and Collective Action

by Michael C. Dorf

The immediate cause of the unfolding catastrophe in the Amazon is political. Jair Bolsonaro, like other right-wing populists elected to power in recent years, strongly signaled indifference to environmental devastation, which emboldened farmers, ranchers, and miners to set fire to the rain forest in order to clear land for commercial gain. Under intense domestic and international political pressure, the Bolsonaro government has begun deploying the military to put out the fires and begin enforcing environmental laws. These efforts are of course welcome, although Bolsonaro's rejection of aid offered by G-7 countries and his own record cast doubt on his commitment.

In any event, the long-term crisis is only partly amenable to government-led solutions, in Brazil and throughout the world. Consumer eating habits must also change.

Here is a conversation I have sometimes had when people discover I've been a vegan for over a dozen years:

Them: Why?

Me: Originally I became vegan to avoid participating in unjustified exploitation and killing of animals, but I now also do it for the health benefits and for the environment.

Them: Well, the environmental piece is tricky, right? I mean, think about the destruction of the rain forest for soybeans for tofu and soy milk.

Me: Noooooooooo!

Rainforest land cleared for grazing or to grow feed crops (such as soybeans) for cattle accounts for the vast majority of deforestation. Soybean production for direct consumption accounts for a tiny fraction of total soybean production, which is first and foremost for animal feed, secondarily for vegetable oil, then for biofuel, and only last for such foods as tofu and soy milk. If you want to decrease your environmental impact, you should eat more soy relative to meat, not less, because feeding crops to animals and then eating their meat (or other products such as eggs and dairy) wastes most of the calories in the crops.

Beef is the worst offender: It converts only three percent of the plant calories used as feed inputs into calories consumed by humans. But even relatively efficient calorie-converting animal products waste nearly all of their vegetable inputs. Eggs and dairy are the big "winners," but they still waste 5 out of every 6 calories of vegetable input. And that's to say nothing of the additional environmental footprint due to water and air pollution. Even the much maligned almond-milk uses less than half as much water per unit as dairy milk.

There really is no room for reasonable disagreement here: In order to reduce humanity's deadly toll on the natural environment, we must dramatically shift what we eat (and take other measures, such as completing a conversion from fossil fuels to renewables). An important remaining question is how to change human eating habits. I'm going to suggest a radically obvious answer: through a combination of mutually reinforcing individual and collective actions.

In a draft chapter of a book on which Prof Colb and I are currently working, we confront an argument we occasionally hear from people who say they agree with us that human exploitation and killing of animals for food is unjustified. Even so, these objectors say, they may, without moral qualms, purchase and eat such products, because the particular products already exist when purchased (and thus do not harm the animals from whom they were taken) and in a sophisticated market economy, one person's contribution to demand is negligible, thus having no effect on future supply. Although offered as an argument against the case for going vegan for the benefit of animals, it also serves as an argument against doing so for environmental reasons, because either way--these objectors say--individual consumption has no impact.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, what we call the "no-impact" claim most often comes from philosophers. Accordingly, our response draws on arguments previously made by philosophers Bart Gruzalskli, Shelly Kagan, Alastair Norcross, Derek Parfit, Peter Singer, and others. Here I'll just give a very brief summary, mostly because I want to leave the real work of the response for the chapter but also because I think it is tangential to my main points here.

In short: (1) There are tipping points of demand such that if one regularly consumes animal products one can expect occasionally to make a sufficient contribution to affect supply and in the aggregate to affect supply in rough measure equal to one's consumption; (2) We are social beings whose conduct affects others, so that visibly abstaining from consumption of a class of products on ethical grounds affects the conduct of others (as does visibly consuming those products); (3) Even if any particular act of consumption does not affect future supply, it constitutes participation in an unjust practice, which one ought to avoid on non-instrumental grounds; and (4) The no-impact argument has far-reaching consequences for all consumption choices and for such decisions as whether to vote, write op-ed articles, and (a fortiori) write philosophy articles.

So much for the no-impact argument. Now I want to consider a related point. Even if one thinks (as I do) that each of us has a personal obligation to reduce the harm we cause through our purchases and consumption, one could also think (as I do) that individual actions are insufficient to meet the collective challenge. Here I'll identify one way in which government is needed to facilitate individual action.

In a perfect world, there would be no demand for very harmful products. In an almost-perfect world, the government would forbid the worst forms of harm so as to deny even the relatively small number of people who are imperfect the opportunity to cause such harm. In our very-far-from-perfect world, too few people see animal consumption as the evil it is for us to expect legislation that makes a serious dent in demand and thus production. At most we can expect modest measures like cage-size regulation that have a modest direct impact but might also have some indirect benefit in the form of consciousness raising. Just as legislatures could not be expected to ban public smoking when a majority of adults smoked, so they cannot be expected to ban the consumption of animal products when the overwhelming majority of people consume such products.

Yet if truly effective direct government prohibitions are not now on the table, there is still an important role of government in facilitating individual action. Some products that appear similar to one another to the average consumer may have very different harm profiles. Let's say you want to purchase coffee grown in a way that minimizes environmental harm (which is typically also harm to the animals living in the natural environment). You might think that you can simply depend on NGOs, but there are problems with doing so.

One is the safety of the monitors. In Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere, environmental activists and would-be monitors face the real prospect of being murdered for their trouble. Anti-environmental populists like Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte at best turn a blind eye to such tactics and arguably encourage them. What is instead needed from government is robust protection of such activists.

Even that, however, may be inadequate. For every genuinely careful NGO monitoring production and other practices, one can find an industry front group that creates positive-sounding names and happy logos promoting the supposedly "sustainable," "natural," or "humane" processes that bring their products to market. Well-informed consumers may know the difference, but many consumers are not well informed. Enactment and vigorous enforcement of strict labeling and anti-fraud laws may be needed for consumers to make informed choices.

Neither individual action nor government action alone suffices to change demand and thus supply. Together they still aren't perfect, but they can work to complement each other.