Nearly 80 percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon results from cattle ranching, according to a new report by Greenpeace.
The finding confirms what Amazon researchers have long known – that Brazil’s rise to become the world’s largest exporter of beef has come at the expense of Earth’s biggest rainforest. More than 38,600 square miles has been cleared for pasture since 1996, bringing the total area occupied by cattle ranches in the Brazilian Amazon to 214,000 square miles, an area larger than France. The legal Amazon, an region consisting of rainforests and a biologically-rich grassland known as cerrado, is now home to more than 80 million head of cattle. For comparison, the entire U.S. herd was 96 million in 2008.
Environmentalists have plenty of reasons to worry about this expansion, including destruction of wildlife habitat, seizure of lands occupied by indigenous people, and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation (which accounts for 50-75 percent of Brazil’s total emissions), but there’s not a lot they can do – cattle ranchers and agribusiness (including industrial soy farmers) form a powerful lobby in Brazil. One hope is that the Brazilian government’s recently announced plan to reduce forest clearing 2,100 square miles per year by 2018 could help cut incentives for deforestation, including new infrastructure projects and low-interest loans. Another is that the recent collapse in commodity prices – including beef and soy – will remove, or at least delay, the primary economic impetus for agricultural expansion in the Amazon.
Deforestation and head of cattle in the Brazilian Amazon. Courtesy of Greenpeace.
So what does this all mean for beef consumers in the United States? Not a lot at the moment. Brazilian beef is mostly exported to Europe. Still Brazilian beef has characteristics that some markets may see as favorable – Amazon cattle are effectively “free-range”, “grass-fed”, and possibly “organic”, depending on the definition. Further some producers – led by Aliança da Terra, an NGO run by an American rancher named John Carter – are working to reduce the ecological impact of beef production in the Amazon. Others are looking at intensification to raise more cattle per unit of land and thereby diminish the need to clear forest land. Of course intensification, with associated industrial feedlots and corn-and-antibiotic-fed cattle, is not without controversy. In the end some would argue that eating less beef is part of the ultimate solution to this and many of the planet’s environmental problems.
A 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that meat production generates more greenhouse gas emissions (14-22 percent of global emissions) than either transportation or industry. Of meats, beef is the most carbon-intensive with the production of a 1-pound paddy resulting in roughly 36-pounds of CO2 emissions or 13 times the emissions from chicken. With global demand for beef on the rise — especially in emerging economies like China, Russia, and Brazil — the ecological footprint of cattle on the planet is set to continue its expansion.