Brazilian hunger for meat fattened on soy is deforesting the Cerrado: report

  • The Cerrado, Brazil’s savanna, covers over 20 percent of the nation’s territory, but it is seeing severe deforestation. A recent report uncovered links between municipalities with the highest levels of deforestation and with significant soy production. Soy is Brazil’s most important and profitable export, but is also used domestically as animal feed and as a biodiesel energy crop.
  • In 2017, Brazil produced 16.3 million tons of soymeal for its domestic market, and more than 90 percent of that became animal feed, with 50 percent used as chicken feed, 25 percent as pig feed, and 12 percent for beef and dairy cattle feed.
  • From 2013 to 2016, more than 75 percent of all direct soy crop expansion accomplished via native vegetation clearance occurred in the so-called Matopiba states (Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia). A third of the 2016 soy harvest coming from Matopiba was utilized as animal feed or biodiesel consumed domestically in Brazil.
  • More than 20 percent of all the native vegetation clearance occurring in the Cerrado in 2017 was located in just 20 out of 1387 municipalities. Forty percent of the soy produced in these 20 municipalities went to the Brazilian domestic market, with the soy processed mostly by Bunge, Granol, and Cargill.
The Cerrado is marked by vast plains and rugged uplands, as seen here in Maranhão state. But much of the biome’s native vegetation is being converted to soy plantation, with a good deal of that soy going to feed Brazil’s domestic livestock industry. Image courtesy of Global Canopy.

A recent report by Global Canopy, an environmental NGO, finds that meat production is a major threat to the Cerrado biome, a vast wooded grassland rich in biodiversity that covers more than 20 percent of Brazil. The new analysis uncovered direct links between municipalities with the highest levels of deforestation and with significant soy production. Soy is not only one of Brazil’s most important and profitable export commodities, but also heavily used as animal feed and as a biodiesel energy crop.

In 2017, Brazil produces 16.3 million tons of soymeal for its domestic market, and more than 90 percent of that became animal feed. A further breakdown shows that half was used as chicken feed, a quarter for pig feed, and 12 percent to feed beef and dairy cattle. Soy growing (and its use as livestock feed) are both associated with significant negative social and environmental impacts, especially deforestation.

“In the last 20 years, the soy expansion in Brazil was equivalent to an area five times the size of Switzerland,” André Antonio Vasconcelos, the Latin America Researcher at Global Canopy, told Mongabay. “Soy expansion has been responsible for direct and indirect clearance of native vegetation, especially in the Cerrado, one of the world’s most biodiverse savannas, and particularly in Matopiba.”

The term Matopiba was coined by agribusiness, and is shorthand for the Cerrado states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. According to the report, from 2013 to 2016, more than 75 percent of all direct soy crop expansion accomplished via native vegetation clearance occurred in those states. A third of the 2016 soy harvest coming from Matopiba used for animal feed or biodiesel was consumed domestically in Brazil.

In 2017, Brazil produced 16.3 million tons of soymeal for its domestic market, and more than 90 percent of that became animal feed. Image by Otto Ramos/Greenpeace.

Vasconcelos stresses that Matopiba is also home to many traditional communities, with inhabitants who have lived in the region for a century or more – people dependent on natural woodlands and aquifers for their subsistence livelihoods. However, he adds, “much of the soy expansion in this region has been undertaken by large companies, and has raised many land conflicts and tensions with the local communities.” Vasconcelos notes further that soy plantations do not employ large numbers of people, meaning that traditional settlements see few jobs and minimal economic benefits coming from the industry.

The following is a breakdown of Cerrado soy use by sector, company and deforestation commitments:

  • Soy processors (crushing capacity): just seven top commodities companies (Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Granol, Caramuru, Comigo, and IMCOPA), account for 50 percent of all the soy processing capacity in Brazil. However, only five large companies (Bunge, Cargill, ADM, LDC, and Amaggi) have announced zero deforestation commitments which apply to all regions of the nation, including the Cerrado. This means that nearly 50 percent of the soy crushing capacity in the Cerrado is owned by companies without any commitment at all to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains.
  • Meat production sector: Brazil’s JBS, a gigantic transnational meat processing company, accounts for nearly 70 percent of meat sales, including chicken, pork and beef, within the Brazilian domestic market. The three top meat processing companies (JBS, BRF and Marfrig), when combined, represent approximately 90 percent of sales. None of these companies have commitments to not purchase soy from deforested areas in the Cerrado.
  • Biodiesel producers: 70 percent of Brazilian biodiesel is produced from soybean oil. But only ADM, Bunge and Cargill, which account for 18 percent of production, have commitments not to purchase soy from recent deforested areas. The rest have made no deforestation pledges.
  • The Cerrado is Brazil’s second largest biome after the Amazon. This savanna is rich in carbon storage, biodiversity and traditional culture. However, large areas of native vegetation have been taken over by soy plantations. Image by Otto Ramos/Greenpeace.

Deforestation risks linked to the domestic soy market

More than 20 percent of all the native vegetation clearance occurring in the Cerrado in 2017 was located in just 20 out of 1387 municipalities. The report revealed that 40 percent of the soy produced in these municipalities went to the Brazilian domestic market, and to at least four crushing facilities – two owned by Bunge, one owned by Granol, and one by Cargill – which operate in areas with high deforestation.

“The crushing facilities and other infrastructure for soy – such as silos – shape and transform the surrounding landscapes,” explained Vasconcelos. He stressed that the built capacity to process and store soy for domestic and export markets catalyzes soy plantation expansion (and escalating deforestation) in surrounding areas.

“By sourcing from deforestation hotspots, these companies are likely to be buying soy grown on deforested land and [they] must take precautionary action to ensure they do not contribute to further deforestation,” he said.

Daily life in a traditional Cerrado community, where settlers have long lived without formal land deeds, doing small scale farming and livestock rearing. In recent years, large-scale agribusiness has impinged on these communities, claiming their land for soy plantations, and generating conflict. Image courtesy of Global Canopy.

The soy industry responds

Mongabay contacted all the major companies cited in the Global Canopy report; five replied to our invitation to comment, some in great detail:

In a statement Bunge wrote that it has a clear commitment to eliminate deforestation in its supply chains: “We are making progress on our three-part strategy to increase traceability and supply chain monitoring, facilitate smarter future investment through decision support tools, and develop incentives for farmers who conserve land.”

Among its accomplished goals, Bunge claims to have “achieved approximately 90 percent traceability to farm for our direct supply in areas at risk of deforestation; launched, in collaboration with NGOs, government agencies and other companies,, a public decision support tool that integrates economic, environmental and social data to enable more sustainable agricultural expansion; [and] launched a $50m program, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and Santander, to provide long-term financing to farmers who commit to zero conversion of native habitat.”

Bunge concludes: “We are also a member of the Cerrado Working Group, a multi-stakeholder effort working to define a consensus framework for reaching zero-deforestation production and supply” in Brazil’s savanna biome.

The region encompassing the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia – nicknamed Matopiba by large-scale farmers – is considered the showcase of Brazilian agribusiness, with its high yields of soy, corn and cotton. However, this agricultural model has resulted in severe deforestation as seen in this image contrasting cropland with native vegetation. Image by Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.
For centuries, local traditional communities have been living sustainably – harvesting the Cerrado’s native vegetation, cultivating small fields, and grazing livestock without destroying the natural landscape. However, recent agribusiness expansion has resulted in intense conflicts, especially over land and water. Image by Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

JBS told Mongabay that it produces biodiesel at its JBS Biodiesel Unit, specifically constructed to make clean fuel from organic waste produced by the company’s own “protein chain” (ie. beef, chicken and pork tallow, and recycled frying oil), which account for 85 percent of that unit’s output. “The remaining fuel is produced using vegetable oil from some of the biggest companies in the Brazilian industry, which are signatories of the [Amazon] Soy Moratorium,” according to a JBS spokesperson.

JBS didn’t indicate whether the companies from which it buys vegetable oil produce their soy in the Amazon or in the Cerrado. This is an important distinction, as much of the Matopiba soy growing region is not located within the area regulated by the Amazon Soy Moratorium and its voluntary deforestation requirements.

“We would also like to reiterate that JBS is committed to ensuring the beef production chain takes no part in deforestation, and procures raw materials responsibly from selected Brazilian suppliers based on a variety of social and environmental criteria,” concluded the spokesperson. However, other investigations have linked JBS to significant deforestation, and it is well known that the Brazilian government has provided the meat industry with accounting loopholes that allow it to distance itself from ranches responsible for significant deforestation, but which still supply processors with cattle.

Long undervalued by scientists and environmental activists, researchers are today realizing that the Cerrado is incredibly biodiverse. The biome supports more than 10,000 plant species, over 900 bird and 300 mammal species. Image courtesy of Global Canopy.
The Cerrado is known as Brazil’s “birthplace of waters.” Despite the biome’s annual dry season, it has in the past had water to spare. Eight out of 12 of Brazil’s major river basins and three aquifers — the Guarani, Bambuí and Urucuia — all rely on the Cerrado as a source for much of their water. But today, industrial agribusiness is putting intense demands upon that water supply and threatening Brazil’s aquifers and waterways. Soy, cotton and corn crops are all intense water hogs. Image by Fernanda Ligabue/Greenpeace.

A statement from Amaggi points to the company’s participation as a member in the Cerrado Working Group, which is discussing a sector strategy toward achieving zero deforestation, while also paying attention to socioenvironmental and economical aspects of the problem.

Amaggi says it is committed to achieving a non-deforestation supply chain in all biomes, including the Cerrado, though it underplayed forest losses there: “Concerning the Cerrado specifically, Amaggi – aligned with other companies represented by the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (ABIOVE) – understands that soy production is not the main driver of deforestation in this biome.”

Amaggi backs up this claim with figures from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, holding that soy accounts for just 8.8 percent of deforestation in Matopiba and 4 percent in the rest of the Cerrado. However, there are numerous sources which point to soy’s deforestation impacts in the Cerrado being higher.

A soy plantation in the Cerrado. The agribusiness boom has led to wholesale deforestation, land grabbing and conflicts with local traditional communities. Image by Antonio Stickel/Greenpeace.
Despite being the most biodiverse savanna in the world, more than half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation has already been destroyed, due to the aggressive implementation of the industrial agribusiness commodities model across the region. Image by Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

“There is no place for deforestation in the future of food, and we’re firmly committed to eliminating it from our supply chains,” said a Cargill spokesperson. “We’re working to transform our entire agricultural supply chains to be deforestation-free through prioritized supply chain policies and time-bound action plans. We have internal processes and controls to prevent sourcing from embargoed areas and ensure the sale of products originated only from properties that are in compliance with Brazilian law.”

The company also touted its participation in groups committed to reducing Cerrado deforestation: “To find a solution to satisfy the reality of the region, Cargill partners with others in a search of more integrated solutions, such as the Brazil Coalition: Climate, Forests and Agriculture, the Soy Workforce (GTS) and the Cerrado Workforce (GTC).” Cargill, like Amaggi, downplayed the role soy has played recently in Cerrado deforestation. While Cerrado deforestation has fallen in recent years, analysts fear that the Bolsonaro administration’s agribusiness-friendly policies could reverse that trend.

A traditional community member in Piauí state makes use of Carnaúba – a palm tree from which a wax is extracted for use by a variety of industries and for making brooms. Local subsistence livelihoods contrast sharply with industrial agribusiness. Image courtesy of Global Canopy.

Caramuru Development Director Davi Depiné told Mongabay that Caramuru’s sourcing operations include the Cerrado, but that the firm does not buy any raw materials in the areas proscribed by the Global Canopy report. He stressed that the company follows its own stringent Sustainability Principles – which include Environmental Protection, Social Protection and Development, and Economic Control and Development.

He noted that Caramuru only purchases raw materials from areas in an absolutely legal situation, and is dedicated to compliance with Brazil’s Forest Code (Código Florestal Brasileiro – Law 12.651/2012) and other systems, programs, and legal measures established by the Brazilian government.

“In case one area/farmer is not in compliance with any of the laws or systems, the supplier is blocked in our systems until proof of compliance issued by the competent entities, and no purchase is made until then,” said Depiné, though he failed, when requested, to provide the number of such cases.

Industrial cultivation of soy on a Cerrado plantation. Image by Otto Ramos/Greenpeace.

Global Canopy’s Vasconcelos believes all companies must become more deeply aware of the environmental and social impacts associated with their activities, and take meaningful actions to assure their supply chains are deforestation free. This means making zero native vegetation conversion commitments, putting systems in place to implement those commitments, and showing to society, governments, and all interested parties that these commitments are being implemented.

“There is no need to clear native vegetation for agricultural expansion in the Cerrado. When it comes to soy, there are around 18.5 million hectares [71,430 square miles] of land already cleared which is highly suitable for soy production in the Cerrado,” Vasconcelos said. If soy is still expanding into native vegetation areas, he notes, it is only because of profit: lands covered by native vegetation are normally cheaper to purchase, so are attractive to speculators.

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