It is widely acknowledged that global agricultural production is a key factor behind the ongoing effects of climate change. Agriculture produces 21% of the world’s global emissions. The clearing of land in order to farm, and the farming itself, make up the majority of these emissions. These harmful emissions from agriculture greatly outweigh those from the transport and the building sector.

In order to feed the world’s population, land is being cleared in some of the most biodiverse parts of the globe, such as the Amazon rainforest. Most often, forests are replaced by livestock and crops which, in turn, generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. With a growing, increasingly urbanised population, the pressure on the food-system is greater than ever. Temperatures, rainfall, pests and disease patterns, as well as extreme weather events are some of the effects of climate change that are already putting a strain on the food-system. This pressure is affecting local populations and the environments they live in.

There are endless examples of crops produced primarily for consumers of the western world that are causing devastating environmental effects. Producing commodities for global consumption is now recognised as a key driver of socio-environmental devastation in poor areas across the world. Sugar-cane has been a central part of Brazil’s economy for centuries and has been devastating landscapes for over 500 years. Soy being produced for European animal feed drives deforestation in Argentina and Paraguay. Avocados being grown for the American and European markets are causing socio-environmental and political pressures in Mexico and Chile. There is a long list of the vast damages caused by the production of these crops for western consumption, sugar, soy and avocado being some of the most destructive crops. These crops are prime examples of why we should care about where our food comes from.


Tracing sugar’s history has been described as ‘Bittersweet’. 80% of the industrialised world’s sweeteners come from sugar-cane. Environmental degradation, slavery and the obesity crisis have all been closely connected with sugar. Sugar was one of the first world-circulating commodities that depended on environmental damage and cheap labour.

Satellites detected 90,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon during the 2019 burning season, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. These fires allowed for large areas of land to be cleared for sugarcane growing. Recently, left over fibres and leaves from sugarcane have been used to produce biofuel ethanol, making sugarcane an even more valuable crop.

This year also saw Brazilian Prime Minister, Jair Bolsonaro’s, rollback of restrictions, allowing the expansion of sugarcane production in the country. Javier Godar, a senior research fellow commented on Bolsonaro’s decision to reverse the decade old environmental protection; “The decision by Bolsonaro seems to be more political and ideological than practical”. Last year deforestation in Brazil reached levels not seen since 2008. The Amazon is a global carbon sink and therefore, the new laissez-faire regulations could potentially accelerate climate breakdown.

Fires in Indigenous territories have continued to increase into August rising by 6%. Christian Poirier, program director of Amazon Watch, commented “They’re out there in the midst of a pandemic still destroying these forests, still invading Indigenous territories with wanton impunity and Indigenous people have less ability to respond.” This is causing devastation for these communities and in the current context of the Coivd19 crisis, horrors like these are being ignored.

For anyone interested in altering their eating patterns Steenbergs sugar have been described as ‘both organic and fairtrade, and consequently the sweetest choice.’

Argentina and Paraguay’s Soy Frontier

Total meat consumption in Europe is great, on average each person consumes about 32 kg of pork, 24 kg of poultry, 11 kg of beef and 2 kg of lamb and mutton in 2016. British supermarkets commonly market their meat as ‘organic’ or ‘British and free-range’ but this is only half of the story, 75% of the world’s soy is used for animal feed.

A new study by Greenpeace records has demonstrated the extent forest loss in four Argentine provinces, where 112,766 hectares were deforested in 2018. Of those, 40,965 were in areas where industrial exploitation is prohibited or restricted by law. This rapid deforestation not only harms the global environment but also local ecosystems and people’s livelihoods. 

The devastating effect that the soy industry has on the environment and GHG emissions is reason enough for radical change but the harmful effects of soy farming on humans is equally destructive. The World Health Organization has declared glyphosate, the pesticide used in Chaco for Soy, as a probable carcinogen, although Monsanto, an agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation  has defended the safety of its product. In Argentina, 19% of deaths are caused by cancer; however, in soy growing areas this jumps to 30%. There are also reports of violence towards indigenous people and their land, resulting in the displacement of these communities. It was reported indigenous woman was forced to work on a landfill site and now lives in unhealthy conditions.

Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS) is a non-profit organisation promoting the growth of production, trade, and use of responsible soy. This includes producers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, financial institutions, civil society organisations and other relevant players. Securing a RTRS certification ensures that the soy is produced in environmentally-sustainable, socially-appropriate and economically-viable process, deforestation and conversion-free. This is a great way to avoid un-sustainable soy.

“Green Gold”

Mexican notorious cartels are now fighting over more than just drugs, they are utilising violence in their campaigns for dominance over avocado trade or ‘green gold’. In 2018, the exports of ‘green gold’ were worth $2.4bn. Demand for avocados has soared in the last 10 years due to being marketed as being heathy and containing “good” fats. 

They have thus become a staple of the Euro-American middle-class diet. Most avocados from Mexico are exported to the large US market, whereas avocados in UK supermarkets mostly come from Spain, Israel, South Africa, Peru and Chile. 

Criminal gangs are clearing large areas of ancient woodland to produce avocados. Avocados demand very specific growing conditions and gallons of water. It has been estimated that two small avocados has a CO2 footprint of 846.36g which is almost twice as much as a kilo of bananas.

Each avocado demands 320 litres of water and therefore, impacts on the water and food security of local communities. Communities in Chile, for example, have been reporting droughts year-after-year as a result of the over-farming of avocados by multinational agricultural organisations on their land.

Fairtrade pioneers Equal Exchange have established a partnership with Pragor, a group of small-scale avocado farmers in Michoacán, Mexico who each own an average of 10 acres of land, all 100% organic. When shopping for an avocado ensure to look out for the fairtrade symbol.

What can consumers do?

Consumers need to make their voice heard! It is no good boycotting Mexican avocados or Brazilian sugar because this could prompt more criminal activity and take away locals’ livelihoods. Consumers need to make their expectations of the product, and its supply chain, known. There are various alternative methods of farming that can alleviate the burden on the climate, local communities, and ecosystems. 

How can you make ethical food choices?

An excellent tool for understanding your food choices are ethical consumer’s user guides:

Ethical Consumer

‘shine a light on the food sovereignty movement pushing for a fairer food system’.  Ethical Consumer provides the tools and resources you need to make ethical choices. It is a simple, informed and effective format.

The Good Shopping Guide

reveals the good and bad of the world’s companies and brands and helps the consumer choose more eco-friendly and ethical products. They also advise on other products such as appliances and beauty products.


Share This