What if you found out that just four commodities — commodities so pervasive in modern life that we encounter them daily — are responsible for more than half of the world’s tropical deforestation? What if you learned that many of the other commonly cited causes of deforestation, such as cocoa, sugar, and coffee, are now only marginal parts of the global problem?
Surprisingly, all of this is true. Just four commodities — beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products — drive the majority of tropical deforestation.
The four major drivers (and some minor ones)
The following four commodities are the largest drivers of deforestation. Together, they have an outsized impact on the health of our world’s forests and climate, annually contributing 3.83 million hectares of deforestation, an area about the size of Switzerland.
Of the four major deforestation drivers, beef has by far the largest impact. Converting forest to pasture for beef cattle, largely in Latin America, is responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year — an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts — in just four countries. This is more than half of tropical deforestation in South America, and more than five times as much as any other commodity in the region.
Growing global demand for meat and dairy products has contributed to the doubling of soybean production in the last 20 years. Soy is primarily used to feed pork, poultry, and dairy cows, though significant amounts are also used to produce vegetable oil and biodiesel. Large soybean fields in the tropics, particularly in Latin America, are often planted on newly deforested land — or they may expand onto former pastureland, pushing cattle to the forest frontier. Every year around 480,000 hectares are deforested for soy in major soy-producing tropical countries.
Palm oil is used in countless processed foods and personal care products, as well as biofuels and vegetable oil. Produced largely in Southeast Asia, palm oil packs a powerful climate punch, not only because of the amount of land deforested annually (270,000 hectares in three leading countries) but also because much of this area includes the carbon-rich soils known as peatlands. Peatlands contain up to 28 times as much carbon as the forests above them — carbon that’s released to the atmosphere when peatlands are drained for oil palm plantations. As a result, palm oil contributes the most global warming emissions of any commodity besides beef.
Perhaps the most iconic symbol of forest destruction, wood production has been shown to cause around 380,000 hectares of deforestation annually in key countries, though the actual number is likely higher. Wood products can be divided into two categories. Pulp is made from tree fibers and used to produce paper and related products. It drives deforestation primarily in Indonesia, where forests are cut down for plantations of fast-growing tree species. Timber, used for construction or high-end products like furniture, is most clearly linked to forest degradation, in which valuable tree species are harvested and the rest remain. Degraded forests are more likely to be targeted for conversion to other land uses.
Besides the four mentioned above, many other commodities contribute on a smaller scale to tropical deforestation, including coffee, rubber, cocoa, and sugar. While these commodities may have caused significant deforestation in the past (and might again in the future), none of them currently has an impact approaching that of the four major drivers.