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Is intensification helping the cattle industry go Amazon deforestation-free?

  • In 2013, there were close to 60 million head of cattle in the Brazilian Amazon — nearly 200 percent more than in 1993.
  • Between 1993 and 2013, more than 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles) of forest, an area about the size of Italy, was cleared in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • Intensification can boost yields by four or five hundred percent — but some conservationists are wary of placing too much focus on one solution to deforestation.

Though deforestation in Brazil has fallen sharply over the past decade, the production of beef and other cattle products continues to be a significant driver of forest destruction in the Amazon.

In 2013, there were close to 60 million head of cattle in the Brazilian Amazon, nearly 200 percent more than in 1993, according to, a website created by the National Wildlife Federation, the Gibbs Land Use and Environmental Lab, and the University of Wisconsin.

That massive growth came at the expense of vast areas of tropical Amazon rainforest being cut or burned down and converted into grazing land. During the two decades between 1993 and 2013, more than 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles) of forest, an area about the size of Italy, was cleared in the Brazilian Amazon.

As much as two-thirds of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon is used for cattle ranching today. Scientists have been saying for years that better management of that land and other existing pastureland — amending soils, planting better grasses, rotating where animals graze — could greatly alleviate the pressure to raze more rainforest to graze more cattle.

Cattle grazing on a deforested plain in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett Butler.

One 2014 study, for instance, found that, through a combination of taxes on cattle raised on conventional, low-intensity pastures and subsidies for semi-intensive cattle production, Brazil could cut deforestation in the Amazon by up to 50 percent between 2010 and 2030 — which would also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation by a whopping 26 percent.

Finance is flowing

So it’s no surprise that financing is flowing to programs for improving ranch management practices. For instance, Novo Campo, a sustainable cattle ranching initiative spearheaded by Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), an NGO based in Brazil’s Matto Grasso state, recently received €11.5 million (about $12.5 million) from the Althelia Climate Fund to restore 10,000 hectares (about 25,000 acres) of degraded pasture in 20 ranches over the next two years.

Laurent Micol, a senior coordinator at ICV who works on the Novo Campo program, says that intensified production methods can increase yields four or even five times over, which is key to removing one of the main drivers of deforestation in Mato Grosso. “Zero-deforestation production will only spread if it is actually more profitable than the competing, conventional production model,” Micol told Mongabay.

He acknowledges that the Brazilian government and major players in the global commodity trade have made “significant achievements in terms of deforestation reduction,” but Micol says both the public and private sector could be doing more — and the fact that data showed deforestation rates in Brazil crept back up last year reinforces his claim.

“The ranchers’ situation in the large cattle ranching regions in the Amazon now is that they are caught in a low technology, low productivity, low yields and high environmental impacts vicious cycle that leads the activity to continue expanding horizontally,” Micol said.

“They need an alternative to this model, which requires more technology and investments – but this can only be done in a context where adequate governance conditions are in place, involving both the government and the value chain.”

Micol said that more efficient land use in already-deforested areas of Mato Grosso is unlikely to happen without a concerted push from the non-governmental sector.

“It does not seem likely that a state like Mato Grosso would stop growing its agricultural output for the sake of forests,” Micol said. “Plus, this would not solve the problem since it would probably lead to more deforestation elsewhere. Thus we have to capture the huge existing potential to produce more on less area.”

Novo Campo already works with 40 ranches comprising some 23,000 hectares (about 56,800 acres) of pastureland to implement what Micol calls “a concrete, feasible opportunity to do zero-deforestation, sustainable production.”

Though there’s no meaningful way to prove how much or how little those efforts have directly led to any avoided deforestation, Micol is confident they are having a regional ripple effect, since the ranchers Novo Campo works with must also insist anyone they do business with also adhere to the zero-deforestation standard.

These are the ripples that could grow into a wave of change throughout the global industry, Micol suggests, because companies in the cattle products business, such as meatpacking companies, retail and food-service companies, clothing manufacturers, and furniture makers, are looking for a reliable source of verified deforestation-free goods.

“This is what is needed for such companies to be able to actually implement their zero-deforestation commitments,” Micol said, alluding to the pledges made by the hundreds of companies that have signed on to initiatives like the New York Declaration on Forests, the Consumer Goods Forum or the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020.

Intensification alone not the solution

Lilian Painter, Bolivia Program Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, says there’s a lot of interest in supporting intensification projects from government, bilateral and multilateral agencies, and that private agroindustrial companies are putting up some funds towards intensification projects as well.

But she is wary of placing too great an emphasis on intensification projects. Painter argues that the focus should be on integral approaches to land use management “that highlight the value of intact forests and the ecological services they provide” — services that are relied on by any surrounding areas under intensive land use, she points out.

“It would be a mistake to forget the role intact forests play in conserving biodiversity, maintaining huge carbon sinks, conserving water sources and the livelihoods of indigenous people,” Painter told Mongabay, adding that “it is essential that intensification for improved efficiency and productivity be supported by regulations requiring sustainable soil and water management, as well as forest conservation.”

Painter’s colleague, Jeremy J. Radachowsky, the director of WCS’s Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean Program, has worked on sustainable agriculture initiatives throughout Central America. He agrees that increased productivity alone is not the key to lowering pressures on forests.

In fact, he states bluntly that while intensification is a part of the solution, it is a small part. “In Central America, we have seen clear improvements in ranch productivity and conservation due to integrated livestock management practices,” Radachowsky told Mongabay.

“However, cattle ranching is still the primary cause of deforestation in Central America and is especially devastating to the region’s last wild places. Intensification alone is not enough to ensure forest protection, economic growth, or food security — especially with a growing human population and in the context of climate change.”

For Radachowsky, it all comes down to the fact that raising cattle as a staple of our diet, something mankind has been doing in one form or another for roughly the past 10,000 years, may not be a sustainable enough endeavor — even using the best possible practices — on a warming world experiencing an unprecedented global population boom.

Radachowsky breaks down the grim math this way: “Demand for beef is projected to increase 70% by 2050, driven by a 30% human population increase and a per capita increase in consumption from a burgeoning middle class, placing increased pressures on the Earth’s forests and climate.”

Cattle are a resource-intense source of protein. There is simply no way to raise cattle without creating some greenhouse gas emissions, among other impacts on the environment.

“Even if intensification and use of best practices could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, we will be intensifying our way into a deeper global climate crisis,” Radachowsky said. “If we are to address climate change and forest conservation, we cannot only improve existing beef production — we must also reduce our overall dependency on beef.”

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