Thursday, January 1, 2015

Forests Forever?

Forests play an important role in the carbon cycle of the planet, taking
carbon dioxide from the air and putting it into their wood, roots and the soil beneath them.  According to the New York Times, 12/23/14, humans (that’s us) have cut down, burned or damaged three-quarters of the world’s forests, which has accounted for much of the excess carbon that is warming the earth. Scientists concluded years ago that deforestation must be stopped, to limit climate change and preserve biological diversity.  According to Nigel Sizer, director of forest programs at the World Resources Institute, “Every time I hear about a government program that is going to spend billions of dollars on some carbon capture and storage program, I just laugh and think, what is wrong with a tree?”  Richard Houghton, acting president of the Woods Hole Research Center, has argued for turning some 1.2 billion acres of marginally productive agricultural lands into forests.  This could be possible, researchers say, if farming in poor countries could become more efficient.  Dr. Houghton believes that his target of regrowth and protection of existing forests could slow the rapid growth of carbon dioxide, or possibly halt it.  This, he believes, would give the world a few decades for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels

Environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, and mounting worldwide pressure, have helped corporate and governmental leaders in countries with tropical forests to begin to slow the cutting.  Forest regrowth is also in the works. Costa Rica is considered a forest success.  Although much of the country’s old growth forest had been cut down, new policies encouraged regrowth to cover more than half the country.  However, there is a threat to reforestation - a boom in pineapple farming that gives landowners an incentive to cut down recovering forest plots.  The pineapples will mainly be exported as a cash crop.

The Amazon, spreading across nine countries of South America, is the world’s biggest tropical forest.  Brazil has cut down millions of acres of the Amazon for timber, cattle ranching and soybean farming.  The soybeans were mainly used to produce meat for Western fast food companies. After Greenpeace invaded McDonald restaurants and put up poster of Ronald McDonald with a chain saw, McDonald and other companies pressured their suppliers to stop buying products linked to deforestation.  Pressure from the Brazilian government and large business groups has resulted in a sharp drop of deforestation, by 83% over the past decade.  The Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture focused on helping farmers raise yields without needing additional land.  The carbon dioxide kept out of the air by Brazil’s  actions far exceeded anything done in the world to slow global warming, according to the New York Times article.

Indonesia is the new test case for environmental groups; deforestation is rampant there – to clear land for the production of palm oil from a type of palm tree. Palm oil is used in many processed foods – ice cream, candies, baked goods and even lipstick. 
Since the (partial) demise of hydrogenated oils – so called trans fats – palm oil has been used as a replacement.  Despite its high levels of beta carotene, it is not a health food, as it is a saturated fat that can raise levels of cholesterol.  Deforestation of Indonesian forests to produce palm oil has resulted in serious environmental damage and has put the Sumatran orangutan on the critically endangered list.  Indonesia is working on better forest regulation.  This has caused palm oil producers to move to Africa.

Here is action plan for us, the lowly enlightened eaters.   Do not buy animal food if the animals have been fattened with soybeans – the beans have probably come from Brazil (and sprayed with Roundup since they are GMO).  Soybeans from the US, unless they are organic, are also sprayed with Roundup, which has endangered the Monarch butterfly by killing milkweed.  2,4-D is also being used on US soybean crops.  Do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica – support their ecotourism instead.   Read labels very carefully on all manufactured foods, and don’t buy anything containing palm oil. Support family planning in every way you can. Population growth is destroying the environment.  Plant a tree. Your actions count – every day!  Happy New Year.  Feliz y Prospero Año Nuevo.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH  Leave me a message!

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