Consumption: the elephant in the room of shrinking forests

OSLO, Norway (6 July, 2011)_Changing consumption patterns will be the key to reducing deforestation, particularly as rapid economic growth in emerging countries lift more people into middle class whose lifestyle will boost the demand for meat, fruit, vegetables and processed food products, experts say.
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Indian farmer Udham SIngh examines his wheat crop. In the midst of a water crisis, Indian farmers are guzzling more than 80 percent of all of the country's water to meet growing food demands. Photo courtesy of Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

OSLO, Norway (6 July, 2011)_Changing consumption patterns will be the key to reducing deforestation, particularly as rapid economic growth in emerging countries lift more people into middle class whose lifestyle will boost the demand for meat, fruit, vegetables and processed food products, experts say.

“Many of the products of deforestation are consumed by exactly the same countries which are supporting and financing” Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD+, said Ruth Nussbaum, a director of ProForest. She was summarizing opinions from a session on the drivers of deforestation at the Oslo REDD+ Exchange Conference recently.

The world economy is in a “super-cycle” growth, with its size expected to multiply five times from US$62 trillion currently to US$308 trillion by 2030, according to a report by Standard Chartered Bank last year.  The number of people in middle class will jump to 4.9 billion from 1.8 billion in the same period, all of whom will be in emerging countries, with Asia contributing the lion’s share.

China, which, with India, will account for half of the middle class spending by 2040, is not ready for an alternative consumption pattern, said Andy White, coordinator of Washington-based Rights and Resources Institute. “We have to assist Chinese researchers in finding out how to change (typical) consumption patterns,” he said.

Middle income families typically turn into Western-style diets that are rich in meat, which require almost 10 times the area to produce rice, as the cattle feed on grains and pastures. In terms of the fight against climate change, deforestation due to cattle ranching produces nearly a ton of carbon per kilogram of meat, according to research done by the Swedish Institute of Food and Biotechnology.

Consumption in emerging economies may pose a problem in the future, but the massive resources needed to whet the appetite of developed countries also need to be addressed. Steak-loving consumers in Western countries eat 80 kilograms of meat a year, almost three times as much as people in the developing world, according to the Standard Chartered study.

A change in consumption patterns is fundamental to reach a target of zero net deforestation by 2020, which was set by World Wildlife Fund three years ago with global support, said Paul Chatterton from WWF. Since the 1950s, half of the forest area has been cleared and degraded, partly due to cattle ranching, agriculture, unsustainable logging practices, the pulp and paper industry, energy production and other kinds of investments to feed and meet the population’s energy demand.

One of the ways to reduce pressure on forests would be to implement regulations to ban products that are produced in an unsustainable manner, Nussbaum said. Consumers also hold the power to push producers by inquiring about the source of the goods that they purchase, said Duncan Pollard from Nestlé, the world’s biggest consumer goods producer.

WWF calculated that the global population already consumes 25 percent more than the planet’s capacity to generate resources. Changing behavior is a complex and difficult task. If the world is committed to preserving remaining forest areas, it needs to find an alternative style of consumption – the long neglected elephant in the room.

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