Skip to main content

Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

The Contribution of Industrial Agriculture to Deforestation

Industrial agriculture, now ahead of subsistence agriculture (when farmers grow food crops to feed themselves and their families), is the most significant driver of deforestation in tropical countries of the world. It accounted for more than 80% of deforestation in tropical countries from 2000-2010 (Global Forest Atlas 2019a). The current contribution of industrial agriculture to deforestation varies in the world by region. For example, industrial agriculture is responsible for 30% of deforestation in Africa and Asia, but nearly 70% of deforestation in Latin America (Global Forest Atlas 2019a). The main types of industrial agriculture contributing significantly to tropical forest loss are soy, palm oil, cattle ranching, and biofuel production. Most of the deforestation necessary to accommodate the increase in demand for industrial agriculture takes place in developing countries that produce commodities for global markets (Global Forest Atlas 2019a). Previously, in the 1980s and 90s expansion of rural populations was identified as the key driver of deforestation due to the corresponding expansion of small-scale farming, but more recent studies suggest the growth of urban centers and demand from high intensity global commodity markets are the strongest present drivers of forest conversion (Global Forest Atlas 2019a).

One type of industrial agriculture that has been receiving a lot of attention for its role in tropical deforestation is soy. Soy is a globally traded commodity produced in both temperate and tropical regions and serves as a key source of protein and vegetable oils (WWF 2019). Since the 1950s, global soybean production has expanded by a fifteen-fold factor (WWF 2019). In combination, the United States, Brazil, and Argentina produce about 80% of the world’s soy (WWF 2019). China is the world’s largest consumer of soy, with consumption there doubling from 26.7 million tons in 2000 to 55 million tons in 2009, and demand for various soy products in China is expected to continue to increase (Global Forest Atlas 2019b). Although expanded soy production in the United States has not had a substantial impact on forest loss in North America, increased soy production in South America is both a direct and indirect cause of deforestation (Global Forest Atlas 2019b). Across the continent of South America, soy production grew by 123% between 1996 and 2004, and soy production continues to increase in Bolivia and Uruguay (Global Forest Atlas 2019b). In the early 2000s, soy production, alongside cattle ranching, has resulted in significant deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which reached an average rate of 1.95 million hectares cleared annually from 1996 to 2005 (Global Forest Atlas 2019b). Typically, forestland is cleared first for ranching, then pastures are eventually replaced by large, industrial soy farms (Barona et al. 2010). Evidence exists to suggest that the expansion of soy farms into degraded forestland may push pastures into forested areas, which is how soy becomes an indirect cause of deforestation (Barona et al. 2010). Though rates of deforestation in the Amazon have declined since their peak in 2004 due to increased government regulation (Butler 2019), forest clearing for agricultural development continues throughout the Amazon Basin. With demand for soy products expected to increase in China, Africa and the Middle East, and the usage of soybean oil in biodiesels increasing, soy production will likely continue to increase globally (Global Forest Atlas 2019b).

Debatably second to soy production, palm oil production is also driving widespread deforestation in distinct geographic areas of the world (Global Forest Atlas 2019c). The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis,) a tropical species native to West Africa, was introduced to South East Asia in 1848 (Rautner et al. 2013). It has the highest yield and lowest cost per hectare of any major oilseed and is also the leading edible oil by production volume (Rautner et al. 2013). Palm oil is found in a wide variety of products across a range of industries, including food, animal feed, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and biofuels. In the past decade, palm oil production has more than doubled and has become a major driver of deforestation particularly in tropical South East Asia (Rautner et al. 2013). Malaysia and Indonesia, where large tracts of tropical rainforest have been cleared for oil palm plantations, account for approximately 90% of global palm oil production and exports (Rautner et al. 2013). From 1990 to 2005, over 50% of new oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia were established through conversion of lowland forests (Rautner et al. 2013).

More than 70% of the palm oil produced worldwide is consumed by the processed foods and biofuels industries, with China, India and European countries being the largest consumers (Global Forest Atlas 2019c). Global palm oil consumption per capita has increased from 0.5 kg per capita in the 1970s, to 2.5 kg per capita in 2009, and global production volume is increasing by 9% each year (Global Forest Atlas 2019c). The expansion of oil palm plantations and rapid increase in palm oil consumption and production serves as a substantial threat to forests in Southeast Asia and Western and Central Africa, as increasingly larger forestland areas are cleared and converted for agricultural use. Palm oil production drives habitat fragmentation indirectly via the construction of transportation infrastructure for access to new plantations (Global Forest Atlas 2019c). Scientists have recommended that future expansion of plantations should proceed on out-of-service agricultural land, since detrimental effects on regional biodiversity and carbon sequestration capacity caused by clearing forests in the species-rich hotspots like Southeast Asia can be substantially diminished by locating plantations in areas that have already been cleared (Global Forest Atlas 2019c).

In many areas of the tropics, especially the Amazon basin, cattle ranching is preferred to cultivation of crops like soy and palm oil. In areas of poor soil fertility, crop yields diminish after just a few harvesting cycles, while cattle ranching can continue for many years. In remote areas of the tropics like the distant edge of development into the Amazon forest in Brazil, cattle ranching requires less initial capital than farming, and less ongoing investment of labor to sustain. Clearing land for pasture is also leveraged to stake tenure and claim tracts of newly cleared land (Global Forest Atlas 2019d). In tropical areas like the Amazon in South America, cattle-ranching has served as a heavy driver of deforestation.

For example, cattle herds in the Amazon increased by 140% during the period between 1990 and 2003, leading to record levels of deforestation during the same time period (Global Forest Atlas 2019d).

Although deforestation rates have diminished since their peak in 2003 when the Brazilian government implemented policies restricting illegal clearing of forests, slash-and-burn clearing of forestland to make space for new pastures continues today at an alarming rate (Evans 2019).

In conclusion, the growth of urban centers and associated increase in demand from global markets for commodities such as soy, palm oil and beef are the strongest present drivers of deforestation in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Solutions such as locating new soy and palm oil farms in areas of tropical forests that have already been cleared, and public awareness

campaigns that increase the public’s awareness of how to reduce demand for high risk commodities can work gradually to alleviate pressure on tropical forestland; however, the world’s first world governments and major international organizations should invest more time, energy, and financial resources into stopping the spread of tropical deforestation since healthy forests serve as habitat for diverse species of flora and fauna and help sequester greenhouse gases that are overconcentrated in the Earth’s atmosphere.


Barona, E., Ramankutty, N., Hyman, G., & Coomes, O.T. 2010. The role of pasture and soybean in deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. Environmental Research Letters, 5(2), 024002.

Bulter, R.A. 2019. Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon. Accessed from November 4th, 2019.

Evans, Kate. 2019. Ancient farmers burned the Amazon, but today’s fires are very different. Accessed from amazon-fires-today-entirely-different/ November 11th, 2019.

Global Forest Atlas. 2019a. Industrial Agriculture. Accessed from use/industrial-agriculture November 3rd, 2019.

Global Forest Atlas. 2019b. Soy Agriculture. Accessed from use/industrial-agriculture/soy-agriculture November 4th, 2019.

Global Forest Atlas. 2019c. Palm Oil. Accessed from use/industrial-agriculture/palm-oil November 4th, 2019.

Global Forest Atlas. 2019d. Cattle. Accessed from agriculture/cattle November 11th, 2019.

Instituto Nacional de Pesquisa Especiáis (INPE). 2007. Monitoring of the Brazilian Amazon Forest by Satellite 2000–2006. PRODES Database Instituto Nacional de Pesquisa Especiáis. Accessed from November 4th, 2019.\

Rautner, M., Leggett, M., Davis, F. 2013. The Little Book of Big Deforestation Drivers. Global Canopy Programme: Oxford.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 2019. Sustainable Agriculture – Soy. Accessed from November 4th, 2019.

By accessing or using any part of this site, you agree to not download, copy, or otherwise plagiarize its contents in any way.

Salt Lake Community College

4600 South Redwood Road Salt Lake City, UT 84123
Student Services hours: M - F : 7am -7pm
Enrollment Info: 801-957-4073 |