At the present time, there is 29% dry land (versus 71% of oceans) on Earth and 71% of it is considered habitable. (The remaining 29% consists of glaciers and barren land.) Agriculture occupies 50% of this global habitable surface area. 77% of those areas is used for growing livestock — this includes land that is used for growing crops, that we feed to livestock. Only 23% is used for growing crops for our own consumption. At this moment, beef production alone is occupying close to 60% of all arable land. Along with increased meat production, soy production has doubled over the last twenty years. Every year around 1.2 million acres of forest areas are cleared for soy production, and almost 90% of global soy production is fed to livestock. The same is true for 50% of grain and 40% of caught fish. 

But despite the fact that we use four times more land for raising livestock and for growing the plant-based foods they need to survive, than we do for growing crops for ourselves, plant-based foods supply 83% of the calories globally consumed by humans — livestock brings us only 17% of those calories. The same is true for proteins: 67% of proteins that are globally consumed by humans (are provided by plants/) is provided by plants

But even with such high numbers of used habitable land, the demand for meat has been growing ever faster over the last few decades. Global meat production has almost quadrupled over the past fifty years — we produced 84 million tons of meat in 1965 and no less than 330 million tons in 2017. As meat consumption was growing, so was — obviously — the need for arable land. Clearly, our planet wasn’t expanding along with our meat consumption so it’s clear that something had got to give. We chose to cut down the planet’s (rain)forests. 

Only over the last twenty five years, we have cleared a forest area in the size of India in order to gain more arable land and the trend is only continuing. Industrial agriculture cuts down approximately 5 million hectares — that’s an area of Costa Rica — every year. In the Amazon rainforest, it is responsible for a staggering 80% of deforestation. Industrial and local agriculture combined are the deforestation drivers of 95% of deforestation in Latin America, 75% of deforestation in Africa and 70% in (sub)tropical Asia

The consequences of deforestation are vast, very troubling and deeply disturbing. From the animal rights point of view there are (at least) two major problems with deforestation. The first one is, of course, the expansion of agriculture itself: the more the agriculture expands and the more land it requires, and the more individual sentient nonhuman animals are breed into the world, the more of them suffer and are slaughtered for profit. Even though this may seem obvious, is still worth mentioning, because there is often more emphasis on nonhuman animals that are losing their habitats due to deforestation rather than on those animals that populate the deforested areas, even though they are, along with the fish fed to them, in fact, the most numerous victims of this process: we kill more than 70 billion of land animals annually. This is by no means necessary — the aforementioned statistic on calories provision is very clear about that.  

But that’s not to say that habitat destruction is not one of the most horrific consequences of deforestation. The planet’s rainforests are home to more than 50% of animal species on the planet and the deforestation of rainforests is already contributing to the loss of thousands of species every year —  jaguars, sloths, bonobos, and orangutans are just some of the species that are endangered because of deforestation. The result of this is enormous suffering and the deaths of thousands of individuals due to habitat loss, climate change, higher risk of wildfires and droughts, starvation due to reduced food resources and more contact with humans. A species as a whole can’t suffer, but the individuals sure can — and this suffering we’re causing through deforestation and its effects is equally as ethically unacceptable as breeding nonhumans for slaughter, even though this suffering and these deaths are not intentional. We’re guilty by omission.   

But both the expansion of agriculture and biodiversity loss matter from the ecological standpoint too; the expansion of agriculture is contributing to more green house gas emissions in two ways: firstly — the more animals the more gas emissions they produce and secondly, deforestation is in itself a driving force of climate warming, since it means cutting down trees that would otherwise cool down the atmosphere via absorbing CO2. At the same time the rainforests around the world are responsible for 25% of Earth’s oxygen. So deforestation doesn’t only mean more CO2, it also means less oxygen. Biodiversity loss, on the other hand, can mean the collapse of whole ecosystems, which can, among other things, mean millions of people facing a future where food supplies are more vulnerable to pests and disease, and where fresh water is in irregular or short supply.

From a purely ecological point of view, deforestation is causing numerous very serious effects. There are disturbances in the planet’s water cycle — since trees help control water levels — and in the atmosphere. Less trees can result in less water in the air and so less water to be returned to the soil, which leads to dryer soils and the inability to grow crops. Cutting the rainforests is changing the reflectivity of Earth’s surface too, which leads to altering wind and ocean current patterns and changes rainfall distribution even further. Less trees also means more soil erosion, since the roots of trees are anchoring the soil in place — this can lead to disastrous mudslides, mud and soil can wash into local streams and rivers, which can clog waterways and cause damage to hydroelectric structures and irrigation infrastructure. It can also lead to further loss of arable land — a viscous circle.

Deforestation is one of the most topical issues today and animal agriculture is a major driving force behind it. We, as individuals, can do a lot by choosing not to support the industry. Animal agriculture is unethical for numerous reasons, the sheer expansion and deforestation it causes being just two. It contributes to a vast number of deaths and we can very well do without it. Growing and consuming plants requires less land and is already feeding us the majority of our calories — we can easily just stop eating animal products altogether: it would help the forests, a vast number of nonhuman individuals and humans as well.