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Intensifying cattle production in Brazil could cut global deforestation emissions 25%, says study

Deforestation for cattle ranching in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Brazil could reduce more than a quarter of emissions linked to deforestation worldwide by intensifying cattle production in the Amazon, argues a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research is based on an economic model that evaluates two potential Brazilian policies: a tax on cattle raised on conventional low-intensity pasture and a subsidy for cattle produced on semi-intensive pasture. The authors find that either policy would significantly reduce the area of forest cleared for cattle ranching, which is overwhelmingly the largest cause of deforestation in the Amazon. The study estimates the policies could cut deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by up to 50 percent between 2010 and 2030, translating to a global 26 percent reduction in deforestation emissions.

“Our study shows that greenhouse gains from pasture intensification policies considerably exceed the losses,” said study co-author Aline Mosnier of UC Berkeley. “Brazil could act alone and still make a major dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The study says that adopted together, the two policies could offset each other, effectively providing a revenue-neutral way for the Brazilian government to cut greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation without sacrificing agricultural output.

Cattle in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

“A revenue neutral combination of tax and subsidy policies could help to balance agricultural growth, land use conservation, and global GHG mitigation,” the authors write. “Such an approach, when combined with land conservation policies, holds promise for sustainable development.”

A case for factory farms in the Amazon?

Intensification of cattle production often connotes a shift toward industrialized “factory farms” seen in the United States where livestock is kept densely packed, pumped full of hormones, and fed foods not meant for consumption by cattle. But the intensification modeled in the study is a far cry from that approach, says lead author Avery Cohn.

“Most of the improvements we model come from adoption of systems to manage cultivated pasture more efficiently,” Cohn told “We’re talking about the use of improved pasture seeds, more frequent replanting, pest and weed management, more liming and a little fertilizer, and rotational grazing. None of this is far fetched—we see it in practice a little already. It requires more know-how, labor and capital.”

“In our model, there’s also some increased productivity from improvement in animal breeding, feeding, and management. The better pasture management practices trigger the subsidy payments or allow producers to avoid the conventional tax. Often, the best use of the better-managed pasture systems is to combine them with better animal management.”
In contrast to previously published research, the authors also believe that increased profitability of cattle ranching from intensified production isn’t likely to drive increased forest conversion in Brazil if the policy measures they propose are used.

“We find that the policy used to induce the intensification matters a great deal for where and how intensification will affect land use,” lead author Avery Cohn, an independent fellow at the UC Berkeley Energy Biosciences Institute, told “The subsidy increases the overall revenue in the cattle sector, but the tax reduces the revenue. As such, the subsidy increases beef production in Brazil somewhat, but the tax decreases output somewhat. Both policies can reduce deforestation and agricultural emissions, but they do this through different channels.”

Cohn adds that these policies might not effectively address deforestation for cattle production that is primarily driven by factors other than demand for beef and leather, for example, as a proxy for land speculation. But other policies to prevent deforestation — like Brazil’s newly mandated property registry — could help.

The study also concludes that intensification is unlikely to displace much deforestation to countries outside of Brazil, a concern raised in other research.

“Ranging from 6% to 16%, our leakage rates are low compared to much of the GHG mitigation policy modeling literature,” they write. “International leakage would also be low because, although Brazilian beef production comprises a considerable share of the global market, only a small portion of all beef is internationally traded.”

Cohn AS, Mosnier A, Havlik P, Valin, H, Herrerro M, Schmid E, O’Hare M, Obersteiner M. (2014). Cattle ranching intensification in Brazil can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by sparing land from deforestation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2, 2014.