Conservation news

Beef consumers’ role in causing deforestation in South America (commentary)

  • Beef production has proven to be a top driver of tropical deforestation in South America and globally.
  • In South America, land ultimately used for cattle ranches frequently replaces tropical forests.
  • Although many companies spin their deforestation-free beef commitments and practices as robust and comprehensive, we found all 13 of the companies that we scored in our recent report have gaps in their commitments and practices that can allow for continued deforestation.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

This week the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report — “Cattle, Cleared Forests, and Climate Change: Scoring America’s Top Brands on their Deforestation-Free Beef Commitments and Practices” — authored by myself and UCS analyst Lael Goodman, which revealed that some of the largest U.S. consumer goods companies are failing to ensure their beef products are not fueling tropical deforestation.

Beef production has proven to be a top driver of tropical deforestation in South America and globally. In South America, land ultimately used for cattle ranches frequently replaces tropical forests. Many U.S. companies operate in South America and sell beef from the region to their South American customers. And the United States is the top destination for processed beef exports from Brazil, the powerhouse beef exporter in South America. Thus, large U.S. multinational corporations need to ensure the beef they source from South America is free from deforestation.

In South America, forests are often cleared and the land ultimately used for pastureland. Credit: CIFOR/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Although many companies spin their deforestation-free beef commitments and practices as robust and comprehensive, we found all 13 of the companies that we scored in our recent report— Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Jack Link’s, Kroger, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Subway, Walmart, and Wendy’s — have gaps in their commitments and practices that can allow for continued deforestation.

All companies scored need to strengthen their deforestation-free beef policies and practices. Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

For instance, in its 2016 Global Responsibility Report, Walmart claims to be deforestation-free in the Brazilian Amazon: “This year based on supplier-reported data, we achieved our goal that we would source beef that is free of Amazon deforestation by the end of 2015.” It’s true that Walmart is checking to ensure that the direct supplying ranches in its supply chain are not located in areas that were recently cleared tropical forests. Direct supplying ranches are the ranches that sell cattle directly to a meatpacker (slaughterhouse.) Meatpackers then process the cattle into beef, which is eventually sold to a consumer goods company like Walmart directly by the meatpacker or by a secondary processor.

But, the beef supply chain is a long one, and before cattle end up at a direct supplying ranch, they can also travel through other indirect supplying ranches for different stages of production, such as breeding or rearing. And these indirect supplying ranches are often not monitored for deforestation by Walmart or any other company. As a result, when Walmart buys beef products, they could still be associated with recent deforestation on indirect supplying ranches.

This is one example of how beef associated with deforestation enters the supply chain—through a meatpacker’s indirect supplying ranches. Indirect supplying ranches are often not monitored for deforestation. However, many meatpackers do not monitor their direct supplying ranches for deforestation either. Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Because of the pivotal role that meatpackers play as middlemen—receiving cattle from scores of supplying ranches—Walmart and other customers of these meatpackers should urge them to enact policies that protect tropical forests. Meatpackers have immense influence over ranchers’ market access in South America and consequently, a change in their operations to ensure that all of the ranches in their supply chain do not have recent deforestation on their lands can have enormous positive impacts for forests.

Another big problem is that companies are only focusing the implementation of their deforestation-free beef policies on the Brazilian Amazon, leaving other vulnerable forested areas at risk. For instance, Walmart and McDonald’s to date have only focused on ensuring their products are free from recent deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

These two companies are not alone in their singular focus. Companies we scored like Jack Link’s, Mars, Nestlé, and Safeway purchase their beef primarily from G4 meatpackers— JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva. In 2009, these meatpackers signed the Minimum Criteria for Industrial Scale Cattle Operations in the Brazilian Amazon Biome, more generally known as the G4 or Cattle Agreement, agreeing to eliminate deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from their beef supply chains. However, G4 meatpackers only monitor for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rather than all forested ecosystems at risk in South America. They also only monitor for deforestation on direct supplying ranches in their supply chain, leaving out the indirect suppliers that supply those ranches.

While protection of the Amazon is critical, other ecosystems are all but being ignored. For example, parts of the Cerrado, in Brazil, and the Chaco, in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia are being converted to pasturelands at high rates to expand adjacent ranches. In only five years, deforesting and burning of the Cerrado released 1,449 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent into the air, equal to the annual emissions of about 306 million cars, with conversion to pasture responsible for more than half of them. Forest clearance for beef production is also a huge problem in the Paraguayan Chaco, which has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

A number of forested ecosystems across South America remain at risk for conversion to cattle pasture, including (but not limited to) regions within the Amazon, the Cerrado, the Chaco, and the Chiquitano. Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

While monitoring in these different ecosystems has some barriers due to the dearth of reliable monitoring systems, new technology has recently emerged, such as the World Resources Institute’s new tree loss monitoring system in Brazil. Companies like Walmart and McDonald’s must work with their supplying meatpackers to expand monitoring of deforestation to all forested ecosystems if they want to prove themselves to be truly deforestation-free.

[Cerrado Photo. Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists. Caption: Cattle ranchers have cleared ecosystems outside the Brazilian Amazon, including in the non-Brazilian Amazon, the Chaco, the Chiquitano, and the Cerrado (pictured here), for expansion of cattle pasture.]

Consumers and investors are increasingly calling on companies to provide assurance that their products are produced in a sustainable manner, as evidenced by the consumer and investor demands that led to a wave of consumer goods companies adopting deforestation-free palm oil commitments over the past few years. However, making a real change takes more than just words on paper. It requires companies to work closely with their suppliers and engage with strong implementation partners to change practices on-the-ground. UCS is working to make deforestation-free beef the industry norm by launching a campaign to mobilize consumers to tell these companies to adopt deforestation-free policies and work with their suppliers to turn these policies into real action.