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Global brands’ beef is putting South America’s tropical forests at risk: report

  • A scorecard released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) graded 13 global fast food, retail, and food manufacturing companies based on a variety of criteria, including whether or not they have adopted deforestation-free purchasing commitments and and have established sufficient systems to monitor their supply chains for beef linked to deforestation.
  • Those consumer companies should be working with the meatpackers they buy from to ensure the ranches supplying their cattle are not associated with deforestation, but all of the companies graded by UCS could be doing more, the group says.
  • Even the top performers in UCS’s scorecard — Mars (37 out of 100 points), McDonald’s (48 out of 100), and Walmart (52 out of 100) — have a lot of room for improvement.

The beef purchasing policies of global name-brand companies are failing to protect South America’s tropical forests from destruction, according to a new report.

A scorecard released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) graded 13 global fast food, retail, and food manufacturing companies based on a variety of criteria, including whether or not they have adopted deforestation-free purchasing commitments, have established sufficient systems to monitor their supply chains for beef linked to deforestation, and are providing adequate transparency around implementation of their commitments.

The 13 companies — Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Jack Link’s, Kroger, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Subway, Walmart, and Wendy’s — sell a variety of beef products to consumers, from burgers and sandwich meat to beef jerky and pet food. All 13 companies buy from meatpackers in South America that have enormous influence over beef supply chains due to the fact that they control ranchers’ market access, according to UCS.

Meatpackers buy cattle from ranchers then slaughter, process, and package the beef before selling it to global companies. Those consumer companies should be working with the meatpackers they buy from to ensure the ranches supplying their cattle are not associated with deforestation, but all of the companies graded by UCS could be doing more, the group says.

In addition to the immediate impacts on forest ecosystems, biodiversity, and forest-dependent communities, the clearing of tropical forests is responsible for about 10 percent of all global warming emissions.

“The latest science shows beef production is responsible for more than twice as much deforestation as the other top drivers of tropical deforestation — soy, palm oil and wood products — combined,” Lael Goodman, a UCS tropical forests analyst, said in a statement.

“South America is ground-zero for forest destruction from beef production. We need to protect South America’s tropical forests from conversion to pasture for beef cattle to reduce global warming pollution and protect the planet from climate change.”

Map via UCS report “Cattle, Cleared Forests, and Climate: Scoring Global Brands on Their Links to Deforestation-Risk Beef.”

A July 2015 study found that 54 percent of natural forest loss around the world between 2000 and 2012 — 44 out of 77.5 million hectares (191.5 million acres) — had occurred in Latin America.

And a study published last December determined that while beef and soy are the two leading drivers of tropical deforestation, beef is far and away the largest. Some 65 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2011 was for beef production.

Even the top performers in UCS’s scorecard — Mars (37 out of 100 points), McDonald’s (48 out of 100), and Walmart (52 out of 100) — have a lot of room for improvement. Those three companies aren’t doing enough to ensure the meatpackers they work with are sourcing beef only from ranchers that have no connections to tropical deforestation, though they’ve made the most progress in adopting and implementing deforestation-free beef commitments and practices, the report states.

McDonald’s and Walmart in particular are two giants of the beef market, but loopholes in their commitments and practices can allow for continued deforestation, UCS found. The group added that all three of the top performing companies should be sharing more details about implementation of their commitments and their verification processes with the public, while expanding their commitments to phase-out deforestation to include areas beyond the Brazilian Amazon.

Other forested areas, such as the Cerrado in Brazil and the Chaco in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, are also heavily impacted by cattle ranching, according to UCS. For instance, deforestation and fires in the Cerrado — which the University of Vermont’s Gillian Galford recently called “a new hotspot for tropical deforestation” — released 1,449 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent into the air in just five years. Conversion of the Cerrado to pastureland was responsible for more than half of that, the equivalent of the annual pollution from 211 coal-fired power plants, the UCS report notes.

Burger King is McDonald’s main competitor in the fast food arena, but the company doesn’t even come close to competing with McDonald’s in addressing deforestation in its supply chain, per the scorecard, as it is one of four companies that received a score of zero.

Cattle in Colombia. Photo by Rhett Butler.

“Burger King makes no commitment to ensure its beef meets any kind of environmental standards,” Goodman said. “Nor does it even acknowledge its beef purchasing practices may pose a risk to tropical forests. Its only commitment is membership in two different beef sustainability roundtables. The fast food company needs to take individual responsibility for its supply chain and put in place a time-bound plan to ensure that its operations are not contributing to tropical deforestation.”

The other companies that received a zero in the UCS scorecard are ConAgra, Kroger, and Pizza Hut. Subway received just five out of the possible 100 points. Companies that received middling scores (between 16 and 27) include Hormel, Safeway, Nestlé, Wendy’s, and Jack Link’s — they were dinged for a variety of issues, including lack of transparency and public communication about their actions to guarantee their beef products are deforestation-free.

Nine of the 13 companies — Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Kroger, Pizza Hut, Subway, Jack Link’s, Safeway and Wendy’s — have not made any public commitments to purchase deforestation-free beef that were accompanied by implementation plans.

“They all need to improve, particularly in terms of the ambition of their commitments and their transparency, traceability, monitoring, and verification,” according to the report.

“Beef can be produced without deforestation. The companies scored in this report have the power to help save forests and our climate. Thanks to consumer demand, government action, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocacy, some companies and their suppliers have taken steps to address this risk, but all the companies scored lack sufficient policies and practices to ensure the beef in their products is not connected to tropical deforestation in South America.”