It was 2005 and I was swinging from a hammock on the deck of a rusted out ferry boat struggling down the Marañón River, a tributary of the Amazon.
My ride looked a bit like a post-apocalyptic Huck Finn steamboat, a four-story corroded wedding cake. The hull, open at the bow, held a menagerie of cattle and pigs spooked by the rocking floor. The main deck sported an open-air promenade choked with animal funk and diesel fumes until the vessel came up to cruising speed. Above that, well-healed Peruvians and less adventurous Europeans sweated in stifling private berths, their rusted shut portholes dripping with red oxide tears.
At the top of the boat, open to the sky except for a few corrugated panels, was the hammock deck. This was my home for the next four days along with a half dozen ayahuasca-hungry Brits. We drained the onboard commissary of beer, swung aimlessly in our nylon sacks, and flipped through dog-eared Lonely Planets. Our port of call was Iquitos, the largest city in the world unreachable by roads.
Let’s just say, my first experience with the Amazon didn’t disappoint. The piratical allure of riverboat travel, the toothless man hawking a near-extinct three-toed sloth ($20 bucks by the way), the constant silt-filled waters flowing swiftly toward the sea like a giant chocolate milk flume ride.
There is an overwhelming vastness to it all. The Amazon is almost suffocating in all its oxygen-creating greenery. The largest rainforest on the planet, it is for me, the most inspiring example of the natural world.
Here are a few factoids to put things into context:
- The Amazon would be the 9thlargest country in terms of landmass.
- It is home to 10% of the known species on the planet.
- Often referred to as the “Earth’s Lungs,” it produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.
- 70% of Earth’s known anti-cancer medicinal plants are found in the Amazon; there are probably hundreds of cancer-saving plants still undiscovered.
Beef Myth #2 is: McDonald’s is chopping down all the Brazilian rainforests for its Big Macs. Yet again, cattle are considered the top cause of environmental disaster. This time, it’s rainforest destruction. And I have to admit, the data is terrifying. Referenced accounts suggest 50-75% of all clear-cutting in Brazil goes to grazing lands. Although deforestation levels are down overall, they spiked this last year, turning 3,000 square miles into mulch. That’s somewhere between Delaware and Connecticut in size. These numbers make me second-guess my career choice. Maybe I miscalculated my morals somewhere. In fact, while working on this piece, I had to ask for a gut check from a trusted source, the Rainforest Foundation. My friend there didn’t mince words. Her email said, “I’m pretty much in the ‘beef is bad’ for the Amazon camp.”
Message received! Unregulated cattle raising is irrevocably damaging one of the most magical environments on the planet. Clear-cutting for cattle ain’t cool.
So, maybe I should stop eating beef, right?…..Not exactly.
Telling Americans to eat less beef does next to nothing to protect the rainforests of the world, especially those in Brazil—the poster child for bad beef—and home to 60% of the Amazon’s broad leaf canopies. That’s because Americas really aren’t eating rainforest beef at all, and especially not from Brazil.
We do eat some foreign beef in the US, to the tune of 16 percent of all American-consumed steaks. However, more than 80 percent of that beef comes from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, (much of which is grass-fed by the way). That means that only about three percent of all beef eaten in America comes from another source. Add on top of that the 2016 ban on Brazilian beef thanks to bribery concerns, and basically it’s safe to say that not one acre of rainforest was chopped down for an American Big Mac in the last three years.
When you dig a little deeper, much of the remaining clear-cutting in the Amazon is for soybean production! That nasty little legume rears its ugly bean again. And guess where most of the soy goes? Asian markets or poultry feed for McDonald’s chicken sold in the UK and Europe.
Another poke in the eye for unsustainably-raised white meat.
Now, my point is not to discredit the horrible and climate-altering reality that is Amazon deforestation. But shouldn’t we know where to focus our ire? Americans wanting to make a difference should start with the Ten Things You Can Do to Save the Rainforest.
Not one of those tasks includes giving up beef mind you. However, you may have to stop eating Doritos. That’s because palm oil cultivation is the newest adversary in the battle for rainforest preservation. Responsible for much of the deforestation in Malaysian and Indonesia, oil from palm plantations is turned into bio fuel, processed foods, and major components of vegan food products, like vegan cheese.
So, if you’re feeling guilty about the rainforests, what have you learned today? Don’t order a six-piece chicken nugget in London, stay away from edamame in Tokyo, and eat that 100% grass-fed burger in Los Angeles – just hold the vegan cheese.