It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I do not think it will surprise anyone that I am not going to adopt the same conciliatory tone as Mark Menzies. The situation we face is far too serious to adopt such an approach. As we heard, the Amazon is being wilfully destroyed. It remains the biggest rainforest in the world and a vital check on climate change. The seriousness of the situation cannot be overestimated and, as my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner said, there are people gathered outside this building who want us to take it seriously.
I make no apologies for referring to a debate I led in this Chamber in March 2009 about the impact of livestock on the environment. I read my speech back and I actually think it was rather good, but the Minister’s response was appalling; she went on at some length about how she really liked her mum’s shepherd’s pie. I would like to think we have made progress since then, but although we are talking about the issue more, we certainly have not made as much progress as I hoped we would back then.
Extensive cattle ranching is the primary culprit for deforestation in virtually every Amazon country. It accounts for 80% of current deforestation and is responsible for the release of 340 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year. That is equivalent to 3.4% of current global emissions. The Brazilian Amazon is home to approximately 200 million head of cattle and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying around a quarter of the global market.
The impact of cattle ranching and deforestation was first publicised by conservationists in the early 1980s—they coined the phrase “the hamburger connection”—but it was fairly small business back then. Government incentives, and improvements in the road and electricity networks and in meat processing facilities, spurred the industry on. Then, with the devaluation of the currency and much of Brazil’s herd being declared free of foot and mouth disease, exports exploded, which led to the current deforestation situation.
Typically, deforestation starts not with animal agriculture but when roads are cut through the forest to open it up for logging and mining. Once the forest along the road has been cleared, commercial or subsistence farmers move in and start growing crops. However, forest soils are too nutrient-poor and fragile to sustain crops for long, so after two or three years, when the soil is depleted, crop yields fall and farmers let the grass grow and move on. That is when the ranchers move in. Little investment is needed to start raising cattle on cheap or abandoned land where grass is already growing, and the returns can be high, at least for a while. However, after five to 10 years, over-grazing and nutrient loss turn rainforest land that was once filled with biodiversity into an eroded wasteland, so ranchers have to look for somewhere else to move on to.
As we heard, deforestation causes irreversible environmental damage if it is not checked in time. The clearing and burning of forests releases billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that deforestation causes roughly a quarter of all human-induced carbon emissions, and then there is the loss of biodiversity. I have not been to Brazil, but I have been to countries such as Belize; the extent to which the rainforest remains undiscovered and unexplored is amazing. There is so much more to be discovered. Forests are home to more than 13 million distinct species, representing more than two thirds of the world’s plants and animals. Obviously, if their habitats are destroyed, many will be at risk of extinction. When the trees are gone, the soil becomes depleted, which often leads to water pollution as the soil gets washed away. That is something for which we in this country must accept responsibility.