Charles Hill, my strategy & economics professor and one of my favorite professors throughout business school always said – ‘If you remember one thing from my class, remember that incentives matter’. I took this preaching to heart and have not regretted it yet. I have also not found a situation since, that doesn’t fit the bill. Today, this is more true than ever. The Amazon rainforest is burning and everyone involved in causing these fires has a very strong incentive to let it burn. Brazil elected a man named Jair Bolsonaro as their president last year. He is a far right leader who wants businesses in his country to prosper and Brazil’s economy to grow at all cost. He doesn’t care about the future of the planet. Sure sounds familiar right?
Brazil is the second largest producer of beef in the world and produces approximately 16% of the world’s supply. They are home to only about 2.7% of the the world population though. So you can imagine the amount of beef they might export. While they are the 5th largest country in the world in terms of area, about 60% of it is covered by the rainforest rendering it ‘useless’ from the perspective of people like Bolsonaro, who hardly understand anything other than the language of money. Rearing livestock is one of the most land intensive occupations in the world so it is obvious that as the demand for meat across the world rises, so does the incentive for a country like Brazil to produce more meat to export.
So then, the Amazon rainforest fires are no fluke. Carnivores are fueling a strong demand for meat and Bolsonaro is burning down the earth’s lungs to fulfill the world’s craving for steak. While some of the largest countries in the world are contributing to a fund to donate $22 million to help put out the fires, Bolsonaro has refused the aid because accepting it would mean putting out the fires that were started for a very specific purpose.
The graphic below shows UN data on global food production and consumption. About 50% of the Earth’s habitable land is used for agriculture. While 77% of this farm land is used for livestock, it only supplies 17% of the consumed calories and 33% of the protein. 83% of the consumed calories and 2/3rd of the world’s protein comes from plants and they only take up a quarter of the farm land. Not to mention that they turn carbon dioxide that would otherwise warm the planet into oxygen which we need to survive and keep the planet inhabitable. Livestock, on the other hand, does the exact opposite 10 times over.
Let us also not forget the amount of fresh water it takes to cultivate meat in comparison with plant based food. The average water a carnivore consumes in a day is approximately 5000 liters in comparison with the 2500 liters of a herbivore. That means you can eat for two days in the same amount of water as a herbivore compared to a carnivore. In addition to this, growing plants prevents the erosion of soil and maintains soil quality and constitution. Livestock on the other hand creates methane which is a greenhouse gas – the primary reason for the warming of the earth.
Simply put, if we REALLY want to tackle the root cause of the burning rainforest, we need to rescind the incentive we’ve unknowingly created for countries like Brazil to produce more livestock and the benefits they reap from exporting it. If meat demand goes down, they will have no incentive to raise cattle and the forest will survive. Trust me when I say that your body will thank you too. The human anatomy has more in common with herbivores than carnivores. We were designed for a largely vegetarian diet. If you don’t believe me, compare your jaw and your teeth to that of your dog or cat. Then try to do the same with a horse or a cow. Which ones does it seem more similar to? Additionally, No carnivore on the planet requires their meat to be cooked in order for them to consume it safely. It would seem that all carnivores evolved to digest raw meat. Why did we humans sit out this evolutionary transformation if we were supposed to be carnivores. I don’t know the answer but I certainly ponder the question.
When hunters went out throughout history, they often came back empty handed. Meat was only available when they were lucky enough to make a kill. The gatherers sustained communities for the most part with what they gathered from plants. This phase of societal evolution would tell us then that meat was the mainstay of an occasional feast at best. Something we consumed once in a fortnight. Also something that was acquired after great physical toiling. Somehow we’ve transformed into a society eating 3 meat comprising meals a day and very little physical activity to procure it. The Jimmy Johns guy actually shows up at the door and so does the Dominos person. The balance of the human body then has been turned on its head. No wonder we are all getting sick with diseases that we cannot find causes or cures to.
About 6 years ago, my wife and I made a promise to each other that we would only eat meat when we traveled internationally and we have kept that promise for the most part. We’ve made exceptions some times when there were no other options or when it was a special occasion. While saving the planet wasn’t the only reason we went vegetarian, it has been one of the main ones we stick to it. I don’t urge people to make a drastic lifestyle change like we did, however I do want to urge them to eat less meat. I will tell you that it is easier than you believe. Especially if you live in a more urban setting. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are making burgers and other meatless products that will make you hard pressed to tell the difference. Try to replace the next burger you have with one of these. Do your part and the rainforests will remain the clean healthy lungs they have been for centuries. The earth will continue to still breathe and so will our children.