Consumer habits in major economies around the world are uprooting trees by the billions, according to a new report in the journal published in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.
The report found that the average person in G7 countries is responsible for the loss of around 3.9 trees annually through their consumption of foods like coffee, beef, chocolate, and palm oil, while the average person in the US is responsible for the loss of around five trees. Consumer habits in China and India are also major drivers of global deforestation.
By individualizing global forest loss in this way, the authors of the report hope to show how everyday people can take action to protect the planet.
“We wish people would think more about deforestation before buying and consuming forest-risk commodities,” Dr. Nguyen Tien Hoang, the lead author of the study, told Carbon Brief.
Hoang’s team of researchers created maps of global forest loss from 2001 to 2015 and then compared them with supply chain data and other industry trends to pinpoint causes of deforestation. The results further show the staggering environmental toll of international trade. In particular, the global food system clears large swaths of forest on a daily basis to make way for livestock production and agriculture.
While the problem ultimately stems from industrial forces and a lack of government regulation, everyday habits shape market priorities, researchers told Carbon Brief.
Coffee bought in coffee shops and grocery stores in Germany could be causing deforestation in Vietnam. Beef bought in the US could be razing the Amazon rainforest. Chocolate found in the UK could be linked to forest loss in Ghana.
“It’s easy to look at the farmers, foresters, and countries where deforestation is occurring and wish they would stop. But they are responding to signals from the global market,” Dr. Daniel Moran, an environmental researcher not involved in the study, told Carbon Brief. “We are buying their soy as feed for our hamburgers and salmon and their palm oil as input to our lipstick.”
The world’s forests provide immeasurable value — they store carbon dioxide, create food, filter sources of water, provide shelter, buffer communities from storms, foster biodiversity, and much more.
Since the industrial era began, more than 64% of global forest has been destroyed or degraded. Between 2002 and 2019, forest equivalent to the size of France has been lost.
Deforestation is a major cause of climate change because every chopped tree releases greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Conversely, every tree saved or planted helps to curb climate change.
Stopping deforestation is ultimately a structural matter that demands policy solutions, but people in wealthy countries can make a difference next time they go to the grocery store by seeking out products that are forest-friendly and, above all, by supporting local farms that operate outside of the international system of trade.