An escalating global trade war is unarguably bad news for American farmers and ranchers, who have already collectively lost billions of dollars. Long-term damage to important trading relationships will likely cost billions more. But there’s another victim of the trade war: the environment.
Without the United States as a reliable trading partner, China has been forced to seek other markets for the commodities it has historically purchased from American farmers. And other countries have responded to this new opportunity. In order to meet China’s thirst for soybeans, Brazilian farmers have converted large swaths of the savanna and forested land, likely contributing to the thousands of wildfires currently burning in the Amazon rainforest.
Completely changing a biome does not come without consequences. Eliminating native vegetation in the Amazon has shrunk the habitat for ten percent of all wildlife species and put thousands at risk of extinction. If current rates of deforestation persist, many more species will be added to the list.
Deforestation has also depleted and degraded water in the region. As vegetation disappears, surrounding water disappears with it. “Reduced vegetation leads to higher ground temperatures and lower humidity, a recipe for less rainfall,” Reuters reported last year. The consequences reach far beyond Brazil, however. As rainfall patterns change in South America, they’re also changing around the globe. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, “complete Amazon deforestation would reduce rainfall in the U.S. Midwest, Northwest and parts of the south during the agricultural season.”
But large-scale deforestation doesn’t just eliminate wildlife habitat and deplete water supplies – it also releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases. Native vegetation stores carbon in its roots and deep in the soil. When that vegetation is disturbed, the carbon escapes from the soil into the atmosphere and exacerbates climate change. In 2016, deforestation of Brazil’s savanna released 248 million metric tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Without additional environmental protections of wild ecosystems, shifting trade dynamics will likely spur additional deforestation and even greater greenhouse gas emissions in the future.
It is important to note that the United States already produces enough soybeans to fulfill China’s needs. “It’s such a waste,” Gary Wertish, Minnesota Farmers Union President, told HuffPost. “We have plenty of soybeans to sell, while you worry that more and more land is being put into production in Brazil to satisfy the market. And the rainforest is so crucially important to the world.”