Jane Goodall: To Protect Forests, We Must All Become Vegetarians

Jane Goodall and Alec Baldwin at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco / The Paper

At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, actor and UN ambassador Alec Baldwin asked the iconic Jane Goodall straight-up: “Why should we protect the forests?”

“On a spiritual level, it’s about preserving the interconnectedness of all living things, the tapestry of life. Some small creatures may seem insignificant, but everything has a purpose.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where Goodall has spent her career researching chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, forests are rapidly disappearing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some 91,000 square kilometers of forest, an area three times the size of Belgium, has been lost since 1990. Deforestation has been caused by population growth, which has led to the expansion of farms and cattle ranches, and international logging companies.

Goodall remembers cruising over Gombe National Park in Tanzania in a small plane in the early 90s and being shocked to discover the extent of the deforestation near a zone where she was researching chimps. Local farmers had been cutting down the forest to plant crops, but soon the soils became overworked and infertile, so they would cut down more forest, repeating the cycle.

Conservation organizations and European governments have been purchasing vast swathes of the tropical rainforest in South America in order to protect it. But Goodall said in Africa, “purchasing land is usually not a solution. Instead, partnerships with local communities are key.” Communities near forests must be educated on more sustainable and intensive farming techniques that enable them to grow more food while also restoring soil fertility. Communities must have enough food and income if we expect them to protect forests.

The ever-increasing demand for beef is also threatening the world’s remaining forests. There are now some 1.3-1.5 billion cows on Earth that need to be fed immense amounts of grain. Goodall said “more grain feeds animals than people.” All that grain requires unsustainable amounts of land and water. One analysis found just a single pound of beef requires some 1,800 gallons of water if the entire food production cycle is considered.

For Goodall, vegetarianism is then critical to saving the forests. We must stop eating beef, as “we need forests for our spiritual and psychological development.” And we must preserve forests as habitat for Goodall’s beloved chimps and all the other vitally-important tree and animal species.

Goodall travels some 300 days a year in an effort to create hope for a more sustainable future. She has witnessed amazing restoration projects, often including indigenous people. Indigenous people are key to forest conservation because “they understand forests and don’t overpopulate, anymore than chimps do.”

She added that planting trees through massive reforestation efforts is prohibitively expensive in most developing countries. “Leaving land fallow works best; the trees come back.”

Lastly, this global environmental phenonemon reiterated that people need to change their diets and eat less beef. Baldwin asked: “Are people ready for that?” Goodall believes so. “Even in Texas, you can now easily find a vegetarian restaurant. You aren’t looked at like you are some weird freak, some tree hugger.”

In reality, a recent Gallup report found just 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian and 3 percent are vegan. In contrast, some 29 percent of the population of India is vegetarian.

In a related session, Carole Saint Laurent, deputy director of global forests and climate change with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said her organization is helping countries achieve the Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 160 million hectares of degraded or deforested land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. (For reference, 150 million hectares is about four times the size of California).

Today, some 7.6 million hectares are lost each year to cattle ranches and farms, and pressures on forests will only increase as the Earth’s population hurtles towards 10 billion. To protect forests for the long term, IUCN and other organizations have launched the 30 x 30 Challenge, which has brought together many important players across sectors. The goal is deeper economic, environmental, social, and cultural changes in land use.

Naoko Ishii, head of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which steers billions towards climate and environmental projects in developing countries each year, believes the 30 x 30 Challenge can “transform global food and agricultural systems.”

GEF will be putting a half billion dollars to this effort over coming years. “We need to produce 300 percent more food with population growth. This production expansion is a huge challenge for forests, and the problem is particularly acute in Africa.” Solutions will require more “science-based planning at the landscape level” in order to “get out of fragmented, small-scale actions.”

3 thoughts on “Jane Goodall: To Protect Forests, We Must All Become Vegetarians

  1. mark cohen 10/09/2018 / 11:45 am

    Hi, while there is truth and accuracy regarding grain-fed beef, and that this would be a good thing to avoid/boycott, to miss the potential of grass-fed beef in terms of soil building, ecosystem restoration, food security, etc, is very unfortunate and irresponsible. It would be like saying don’t use electricity because of coal, nuclear, etc without considering solar, biomass gasification with biochar production, microhydro or wind options.

    I’m really surprised that Jane has not processed the work of Alan Savory in S Africa and its implications, as well as all the other intensive grazing data for building soil on land that is not good for annual crops (vegetarian options), too dry, steep slopes etc.

    I know the average person needs a simple message that doesn’t require ecological literacy or nuance but it is getting late in the game for these kinds of narrow generalizations. The most hopeful options are regenerative in specific ways that are not as simple as just not doing things, how do we convey that in a soundbite? That is our challenge.

  2. Martha Polkey 10/11/2018 / 9:16 am

    Thanks, Mr. Cohen, for your comments. In poorer parts of the world, deforestation is occurring BECAUSE people are converting forest land to cropland. Not to feed cows, to feed themselves. Beef, sheep, and goats make productive use of millions of acres that should not be converted to cropland–hillsides, land prone to erosion and flooding, and other sensitive environmental areas. And the huge advances in knowledge and practice of using grazing to improve soil health is ignored by both Goodall and others. It is that same case of a belief system (vegetarianism) selectively choosing scientific facts to support that belief, and ignoring the rest. The water use by beef is not “used up”; it’s recycled just like all the water every other thing uses.

    • mark cohen 10/12/2018 / 4:43 pm

      Thank you Martha. There is no question that profound damage has occurred by the mismanagement of grazing livestock (the sahara, middle east, etc) I have spent decades working in the tropical south on agroforestry systems, which applies to the millions of acres you refer to, and many areas are not conducive to grazing. But desertification in grassland areas in particular can be reversed with proper grazing management. Also great potential for silvopastoral systems exists for much of the world, bringing the best of forestry and grassland management together. I have spent 28 years observing all manner of farmland management as an organic certification inspector. The most rapid soil carbon building I have seen has been on intensive rotational grazing by far (3% organic matter increase in 4 yrs) with 27,000 gallons of water storage per acre per % point. This has profound implications that is more complicated than vegetarian choices alone.

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