Why the Amazon Rainforest Could Be Devastated by the U.S.-China Trade War

Amazon rainforest in Brazil, South America
An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, South America. Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

Over the last several months, the United States and China have levied more than $360 billion in tariffs on two-way goods being traded, creating economic havoc in both nations' manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

One of the most hotly impacted commodities has been soya beans, as Chinese imports of U.S. soya products has basically collapsed to zero. This has caused hardship for U.S. farmers, but the impact is now also reverberating into other areas of concern — namely, the global environment.

That's because as China abandons U.S.-grown soya beans, it's looking to make up the difference elsewhere. And the place to do that, apparently, is Brazil, home to the bulk of the Amazon rainforest. Those Brazilian soya plantations are already steadily replacing rainforest at an alarming clip, and with the Chinese demand creating a mini-boom for the coveted product, even more precious forest is projected to be bulldozed, reports Phys.org.

What's at stake

soybean field
Rainforests are being felled for soybean plantations in Brazil. A C Moraes/Flickr

According to U.N. data and consumption trends, the area dedicated to soya production in Brazil could increase by as much as 39 percent, which would impact pristine rainforest that's roughly the size of Greece.

"It's quite striking. This is the worst-case scenario," said Richard Fuchs, senior research fellow at the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, in Karlsruhe, Germany. "But we know that there are only a few players out there, the important (soya bean) producers are the US, Brazil and Argentina."

He added: "Over 80 percent of crop production in the US is maize and soya bean grown in rotation, largely for export. If you have a few producers supplying the world market, they become highly vulnerable to trade tensions as we see right now."

The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and one of the biggest drivers of global climate. It represents a major carbon sink, accounting for about 10 percent of the carbon stores in Earth's ecosystems, and is home to one in 10 of all known species in the world. At current rates, tropical deforestation is set to release up to 13 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by the end of the century. That's not considering an increase in those rates due to the current trade crisis.

If you factor in the negative impact of climate change on the world economy, this U.S.-China trade war is about far more than just trade imbalances. The environmental and economic hardship it could cause is orders of magnitude higher than any simple trade calculation.

It's important to remember that our economic and environmental ecosystems are entwined, and we must consider more than just currency when calculating dollars and cents.