Deforestation gives some Brazil beef a big carbon footprint

March 08, 2011

Extensive deforestation for low-yielding cattle production means some Brazilian beef carries a disproportionately high carbon footprint, reports a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology.

Researchers at the Swedish Institute of Food and Biotechnology found that sixty percent of the Brazilian beef industry's carbon emissions come from just six percent of producers: the small group of ranchers that clear Amazon rainforest for cattle production. 60-70 percent of land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon ends up as cattle pasture.

"We have calculated in many different ways in the article, and no matter how we do it, we arrive at the conclusion that Brazilian beef is a heavy producer of carbon dioxide," the authors said in a statement. "The snag is that this 6 percent of beef production causes about 25 times more carbon dioxide emissions than beef produced in the rest of Brazil. This means that the average for carbon dioxide emissions caused by beef production in Brazil is twice as high as that in Europe."

Taken as a whole, the high average emissions could hurt the competitiveness of Brazilian beef in the marketplace. The authors suggest that certification systems could help low and moderate emissions producers distinguish their beef from high emissions producers provided carbon footprint accounting standards properly incorporate emissions from land use change. They note that current carbon accounting standards often fail to account for all emissions sources.

"Consumer-driven changes of agricultural practices can support the changes called for, but environmental certification schemes that do not include more extended effects of land use change will not help to reduce the pressure for changes like deforestation since current export production often is sourced from non-newly deforested land," they write. "The Brazilian beef example developed here illustrates the need to maintain the search for methodology to include land use change in estimating the environmental impacts associated with agricultural and forest products."

The researchers conclude by warning that increasing global food demand will put additional pressure on forests.

"The basic problem is that we are eating an increasing amount of meat. For every new kilogram we eat, the risk of deforestation increases," said study co-author Christel Cederberg.

CITATION: Christel Cederberg, U. Martin Persson, Kristian Neovius, Sverker Molander, Roland Clift. Including Carbon Emissions from Deforestation in the Carbon Footprint of Brazilian Beef. Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1773-1779

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Deforestation gives some Brazil beef a big carbon footprint.