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As the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s close in on their 2020 deforestation pledges, green groups hope they can use their collective power to put pressure on rogue ranchers
Last year, after nearly a decade of declining deforestation in Brazil, progress went into reverse and loss of forest increased by 29%. Much of the blame was placed squarely at the feet of the meat industry, amid allegations that cattle linked to deforested land are making it back into the supply chain as loopholes begin to appear in the increasingly fragile agreements that govern the industry.
Brazil is the most biodiverse country on earth, but this rich flora and fauna must share the forests and savannah with an estimated 226 million head of cattle. It’s a vast bovine herd that was responsible for an estimated 71% of total deforestation in South America between 1990 and 2005.
In fact, beef causes twice as much deforestation as palm oil, soy and wood products put together says Sharon Smith, tropical forest and climate initiative campaign manager at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
Clearing forests has multiple effects. As well as destroying habitats, it damages water courses and soil fertility, and there’s a double carbon whammy: as well as destroying a carbon sink, burning the forest releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
In the early 2000s, as international scrutiny increased, things began to change. There was a new political will to tame deforestation and crack down on illegal logging, with protected territories established and enhanced law enforcement, including new satellite technology that allowed agencies to monitor forests and, importantly, raise public awareness of what was happening.
In 2006 the soy industry imposed a moratorium on sourcing from recently deforested land and three years later the Cattle Agreement was launched, an enlightened yet ultimately flawed voluntary code brokered by Greenpeace that required meatpackers to scrutinise sourcing and monitor farms for social, environmental and labour practices.
Together these measures worked and UCS’s most recent report, “Cattle, Cleared Forests and Climate Change”, showed how not buying beef from ranches linked to deforestation had led to a drop in Amazon deforestation of 70% between 2005-2014.
So why the reversal? According to Oliver Salge, Greenpeace Brazil's international Amazon campaign coordinator, the cattle agreement always had its limitations. “It only involved the largest three slaughterhouses and not the entire sector,” he explains. “In other words, it did not address deforestation on indirect supplying farms nor the entire cattle sector.”
So-called indirect suppliers are unmonitored ranches that cattle may, at some stage, pass through as they’re fattened up on the way to the slaughterhouse. Many such ranches have been implicated in deforestation, continues Salge, who also regrets that the agreement only covers the Amazon and effectively ignored deforestation in other parts of South America.
These shortcomings have recently been exacerbated by the political upheaval in Brazil. The powerful agri-business lobby has grown in strength, bolstered by increasing influence within Michel Temer’s government. Blairo Maggi, the owner of the country’s biggest soy producer, Amaggi Group, has been appointed agriculture minister, while chief of staff Eliseu Padilha owns ranches within the Serra Ricardo Franco state park.
“We can see signals that the political climate in Brazil is shifting,” says Smith. Last year the environment budget was slashed by 51%. It was a signal, she adds, “that the government was not as serious as it had been previously.”
The meatpacking industry’s commitment to the Cattle Agreement has also been called into question with a scandal engulfing JBS, the world’s biggest meat-packing company. According to an investigation by the Brazilian environmental agency IBAMA the company has knowingly been buying cattle that were raised on illegally deforested land. Greenpeace has suspended all negotiations with the company until it can prove the meat is free from deforestation.
“When you see that the largest company, JBS, has actually been illegally sourcing beef that’s generated from cattle laundering …. it undermines the entire sustainability and deforestation commitment, not only of JBS but also the downstream brands that are relying on this company,” says Smith.
This last point is critical as it means that companies that have pledged to rid their supply chains of deforestation could, unknowingly, still be buying beef products associated with recent deforestation. But as the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s close in on their 2020 deforestation pledges, Smith hopes they can use their collective power to urge meatpackers to act and exert their own influence on ranchers. “That’s the kind of leadership we need to see from the larger companies,” she says.
A possible solution to cattle laundering already exists in the form of the GTA (guia de trânsporte animal), a tool used for tracking cattle through the supply chain for health reasons.
“If the environmental sector had access to this information, they would be able to do a lot more to monitor cattle transit,” says Smith. “This would include not just the first-tier ranches feeding directly to the slaughterhouses but also the indirect supplying ranches further down the supply chain.”
But so far agribusiness has been resistant and refused to make the information public.
“Transparency is key for the growth and responsibility of any sector,” she continues. “Hiding behind this process of proprietary information just means that customers and international companies doing business in Brazil don’t have access to the information they need to ensure consumers that their products aren’t driving illegal activities.”
In a statement from JBS to Ethical Corporation, the company reiterated its commitment to a deforestation-free beef supply chain and said it supports the introduction of what it calls a “green GTA”, based on a list of farms embargoed by the IBAMA that would “avoid animals from farms involved in deforestation entering the national cattle supply chain.”
However, the statement also talks of “government agency indecision implementing the green GTA”, adding that “indirect supplier monitoring must be based on a sector-wide solution involving the industry, civil society, the Federal Public Prosecutor and government agencies.” Perhaps somewhat conveniently, the current government seems to have lost its appetite for implementing such environmental controls.
Another of Brazil’s top meatpackers,Marfrig, also told us that it is now using a new tool, request for information (RFI), in which cattle breeders register the origin of animals acquired from indirect suppliers and check them against official lists. However, the company does not make clear whether the system is mandatory.
Smith is keen to bust the myth that an increase in agricultural production ultimately leads to more deforestation. Brazil has already demonstrated that it is possible to decouple agricultural sector growth from forest loss, she says: “These two issues are not intrinsically linked.”
Instead, existing land needs to be used more efficiently. One 2014 study showed that increasing productivity on cultivated pasturelands would be sufficient “to meet demands for meat, crops, wood products and biofuels until at least 2040, without further conversion of natural ecosystems.”
Farming more efficiently is part of the thinking behind Novo Campo (New Land), a pilot programme in Brazil’s Mato Grosso region. It includes ideas such as dividing the property into smaller units and regularly rotating the cattle between them, which helps to optimise grass growth and keep the soil fertile. More shade is provided and drinking water, too, to improve animal welfare and make them ready for market sooner. The best performing ranches in the programme have also reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 90%.
There are also 40 million hectares of cleared yet degraded and under-used land in Brazil that could be turned over to pasture for cattle, says Smith. But restoring this land is expensive and time-consuming, meaning that it can actually be cheaper to clear-fell an area of forest for grazing instead, especially if there’s an ulterior motive. “Burning landscapes for pasture is used as a land speculation tool,” claims Smith, with the land later sold on to farm soy and more other lucrative commodities.
Monitoring the supply chain
Not-for-profit CDP is currently piloting a new reporting programme to help cut deforestation in the supply chain, and bring greater standardisation to companies’ activities across various commodities.
Dexter Galvin, head of supply at CDP, says they are working with companies to gather information from their key suppliers on how they are managing the risks linked to forest loss. “We’re trying to push the responsibility down the supply chain and ensure that we’re improving procurement standards and driving a requirement for better quality data,” he explains.
“In commodity supply chains there’s a lot of opportunity for unsustainable sourcing. If you give companies an inch they can take a mile … any ambiguity, any relaxing of standards, weak procurement policies, that can have a serious ripple effect.”
Galvin believes consumers expect that the brands they are buying are on top of issues such as deforestation. “Consumers don’t want to have to consider these issues when they’re standing in the supermarket.”
Time for sanctions?
A boycott of Brazilian beef, much of which is shipped to China, seems unlikely, but other sanctions could be brought to bear. Norway is threatening to withdraw billions of dollars of financial assistance if the recent trend of deforestation continues, although there have been charges of hypocrisy given the country’s involvement in drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle.
“Brazil has invested a lot in portraying its agricultural practices as sustainable in international markets, but recent attacks by the Temer government on environmental monitoring, information transparency and overall law enforcement put this green image into question,” says Salge.
However, he adds: “Customer demands and a change in the purchasing patterns by the international markets are likely to be heard by responsible Brazilian politicians.”
Galvin agrees, and believes that even if the Brazilian economy is struggling, relaxing environmental and ethical regulations is no panacea. “A lot of big retailers and purchasing organsiations want tight controls in the supply chain. They expect that, and if they don’t see that they may actually choose not to source from those markets. It’s a big risk to avoid having a strong regulatory regime.”
Smith believes that it’s down to manufacturers to drive the changes. “When the agribusiness lobby is so strong, and when there are signals that environmental progress in tackling deforestation in Brazil is on the reverse … I think it’s critically important for the brands that are doing business with Brazil to signal that this is an unacceptable pathway forward.”
This article is part of a series of articles on deforestation in supply chains. See also: