Deforestation-linked Brazilian beef still flowing into international markets: report

  • More than 200 million cattle live and graze in Brazil, bringing US $123 billion into the country’s economy annually. However, 80 percent of new deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is caused by the conversion of forest to cattle pasture.
  • While international beef retailers have worked to decouple their markets from cattle-driven deforestation, a recent report shows that a lack of traceability and transparency of the cattle supply chain continues to thwart their efforts.
  • A major loophole: cattle are owned over their lifetimes by several ranches. But current policies only require slaughterhouses to assure that no deforestation occurred on the ranch from which the livestock was purchased. So ranchers who cause illegal deforestation “launder” cattle, by selling them to ranchers who don’t.
  • Experts say that Brazil needs to adopt Uruguay’s digital traceability system whereby every cow is electronically tagged at birth and tracked along the entire supply chain. But they say Brazil lacks the political will to establish a similar system, primarily because the government is dominated by the agribusiness lobby.
Ranching in Pará state, Brazil. The nation is home to more than 200 million cattle Photo credit: acmoraes on Visualhunt / CC BY

Cattle ranching is the main driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, despite commitments by major producers and retailers to cut ties with harmful ranching practices, according to a report by Chain Reaction Research published in September.

Brazil today is home to over 200 million cattle – the world’s second largest herd after India – and its ranches contribute around R $500 billion (US $123 billion) to the country’s economy each year, representing 7 percent of Brazil’s GDP in 2016

As a result, conversion to pastureland remains the main driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, and even transnational retailers that have made commitments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains are exposed to deforestation risk, according to a report co-authored by researchers from the sustainability consultancy Aidenvironment, the non-profit organization Profundo, and the environmental policy consultancy Climate Advisers.

The joint research project looked in detail at the “link between the beef sector in Brazil and its role in deforestation on the one hand, and the top retailers as key sales channels for beef in Brazil on the other hand,” says co-author Barbara Kuepper, Senior Researcher in Sustainable Supply Chains at Profundo.

The team used data from a report published in 2017 by Brazilian NGO Imazon, the Institute of Man and the Environment of Amazonia, linking Amazonian deforestation to specific meatpackers, as well as publicly available monitoring data collected by Pará state, and other published data on cattle-driven deforestation in Brazil.

Land cleared for cattle in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Cattle ranching continues to be the primary driver of new deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo credit: GRIDArendal on / CC BY-NC-SA

According to a recent report by Imazon, pastures occupy about 80 percent of the deforested area converted to agricultural land in the Brazilian Amazon since 2014. The industry has also been linked to slavery, corruption, greenhouse gas emissions and high water use. The new report identified numerous connections between retailers and meatpackers that purchase cattle from Amazonian regions with high deforestation risk, including JBS, Minerva Foods, Marfrig, Masterboi and Boi Forte – the document directly linked JBS and Masterboi with recent deforestation in Pará.

Deforestation dropped dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon between 2006 and 2013, the result of voluntary agreements such as the Soy Moratorium (negotiated between commodities companies, environmental NGOs and the government).

However, since 2014, and especially after 2016 and the rise of President Michel Temer, the administrative branch, legislative branch, and the nation’s supreme court, have increasingly moved to relax environmental laws including Brazil’s Forest Code, introducing an amnesty on illegal deforestation fines, and reducing funding to environmental agencies, causing deforestation rates to increase.

This “is a dangerous combination that [means] … cleared land is worth more than forested land and the risk of punishment for illegal clearing is low, while on the other hand economic incentives to protect forests are missing,” says Kuepper. A newly released analysis of satellite data by Imazon shows that Amazon deforestation is continuing to climb, with 545 square kilometers (210 square miles) of clearing in August alone.

This comes despite government efforts to decouple ranching and deforestation, initiated in 2009 by the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor’s Office through its federally enforced Terms of Adjustment of Conduct (TACs). By 2016, TACs had been signed by 63 of 128 active slaughterhouses that export Brazilian beef, with the firms agreeing to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.

Meat for sale in São Paulo, Brazil; 81 percent of the beef produced in Brazil is eaten by Brazilian consumers. Photo credit: wallyg on / CC BY-NC-ND

Three companies: JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, are responsible for 70 percent of cattle-slaughtering capacity in the Brazilian Amazon, the report finds, all of which have signed TACs. Mongabay reached out to these companies for comment but received no reply. The remaining one third of meatpacking for export is still is in the hands of companies lacking no-deforestation agreements.

“Retailers run a high risk from sourcing from slaughterhouses that have not signed a TAC,” Kuepper says, potentially exposing themselves to steep fines and negative responses from investors and customers.

However, the participation or non-participation in TAC agreements does little to curb deforestation by cattle producers. A stunning 8.3 million hectares (32,000 square miles) of forest clearing took place between 2010 and 2015 within the buying ranges of slaughterhouses were TAC signatories, the report finds. In fact, TAC slaughterhouses have been directly linked to illegal deforestation in Pará state.

A key deforestation loophole: a mandatory digital or paper Animal Transit Guide (GTA) is retained at every ranch each time an animal is relocated. However, these records are not linked together, nor can they be easily tracked. As a result, cattle arriving at slaughterhouses typically only identify the last ranch in an often-lengthy supply chain, unless each producer in the chain provides that slaughterhouse with an access code giving entry to the record. Ranchers operating on illegally deforested land simply “launder” their cattle by moving them to a ranch with a clean deforestation record before final transport to the slaughterhouse.

“No meat processor or retailer is deforestation-free because the ones that have signed agreements have no full traceability system,” says Paulo Barreto, Imazon’s senior researcher in forestry engineering, who was not involved in the new report.

Cattle spend as much as 75 percent of their lives on intermediate ranches not recorded on the final GTA, allowing deforestation-linked beef to easily enter the supply chain. “This confirms the urgency of creating [full] transparency and traceability,” says Kuepper.

Amazon rainforest cleared by burning, the primary means of converting forests into pastureland. Photo credit: bbcworldservice on / CC BY-NC

The government has taken some actions to close the deforestation loophole: IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental agency, has published a list of embargoed ranches responsible for illegal deforestation, and slaughterhouses that buy from them are at risk of fines. Likewise, CAR, the Brazilian Rural Environmental Registry, collects data on rural property boundaries and neighboring protected areas – data that IBAMA uses in combinations with satellite monitoring to detect illegal deforestation on ranches.

However, the majority of Brazilian states have failed to provide full CAR data to IBAMA – Pará is the only state that publishes such data – making it difficult to detect lawbreakers.

Tracing individual cows from ranch to retailer would be the best option for eliminating deforestation-linked beef from the Brazilian supply chain, says Kuepper. “With enough willingness among supply chain players this would no doubt be possible,” she says, a step that would help assure retailer and customer loyalty.

Uruguay shows just what such a system could look like. Following a devastating cattle foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, the country developed a digital traceability system, known as the National Livestock Information System (SNIG). Today, every cow raised in Uruguay is electronically tagged at birth and tracked along the entire length of the supply chain as part of a government-funded program.

Cattle on a ranch in Pará state. Decoupling livestock production from deforestation will require full traceability and transparency of the beef supply chain, a goal that has already been achieved in Uruguay. Experts say that a lack of political will prevents implementation of a similar initiative in Brazil. Photo credit: acmoraes on VisualHunt / CC BY

The Brazilian Bovine and Bubaline Identification and Certification System (SISBOV), is an ear-tag based tracking system developed in 2002 in response to European Union demand for deforestation-free beef. But for most retailers, the incentives to join the system just aren’t there, Barreto claims. That’s because exports are only a small part of the Brazilian Beef market – 81 percent of Brazilian beef is consumed in-country – so the SISBOV initiative currently includes just 0.5 percent of ranches.

“Brazilian ranchers will only [participate if a program is] mandated by [government] regulation or demanded by the market,” says Barreto.

“Political willingness remains one of the key stumbling blocks,” agrees Kuepper. Analysts say that the future of Brazilian environmental policy rests on the outcome of the 28 October presidential runoff election between ultra-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, backed by the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby; and Fernando Haddad, whose stand on environmental issues is largely unknown.

“The overall scenario is not good,” says Barreto. Political analysts believe, for example, that no matter who wins the election, Blairo Maggi, a strong backer of industrial agribusiness, including cattle ranchers, is likely to stay on as head of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply (MAPA).

Agricultural policy also continues to be heavily influenced by the bancada ruralista in the Congress, Kuepper says, noting that this legislative caucus “may get even more powerful after the October elections,” which “is worrying given their track record of pushing an agenda to weaken environmental laws.”

Counter intuitively, an analysis by NGOs shows that with proper management, agribusiness production levels could be maintained and even increased without any new Amazon deforestation. The new report estimates that Brazilian pastureland is currently operating at just one-third of its potential capacity. Therefore, improving cattle ranch efficiency could relieve pressure on primary forest.

Toward that end, earlier this year, Carrefour Brasil, a French transnational retailer announced that it was investing US $2 million in a joint initiative with the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) covering 156,000 hectares (602 square miles) in Mato Grosso state to restore degraded pastureland, intensify ranching practices, and offer assistance to farmers to comply with Brazil’s Forest Code.

“Livestock productivity could spare land and increase production to supply growing demand for several years,” agrees Barreto. But to protect forests over the longer term as the global population soars toward nine billion people, “we need to consider a transition to eating less animal protein in general and especially beef.” With global beef consumption rising, especially in China, Japan and the rest of Asia, that could be a tall order.

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