- Consumers increasingly seek information on the origin of products. In Brazil, though, many cattle ranchers are reluctant to reveal the source of their cattle.
- Environmental, labor, and fiscal problems explain this resistance. Currently, however, there is a battle to increase transparency about the farms to eliminate these problems, especially in the Amazon, which is responsible for 40 percent of the country’s cattle herd.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
On one of our business trips to the city of Madison, in the U.S., we visited Graze, a restaurant that is proud to show the origin of the ingredients it uses in its kitchen.
At the entrance, we were struck by a map of the state (Wisconsin) showing the restaurant connected to dozens of farms, their suppliers of vegetables, meat, cheese, and other products. Inside the restaurant, always packed with costumers, we observed a huge panel with a picture of the producer of the month and the characteristics of their products and farm. Wanting to know more, we surfed the Graze website and found a map and a list of its farm suppliers.
Revealing the source of food is a worldwide trend now that consumers increasingly seek information on the origin of the products they consume, whether they are concerned about the quality, animal welfare, workers, or the environmental impact of production.
In Brazil, however, many rural producers are reluctant to reveal too much about how their farms are operated. Environmental, labor, and fiscal problems explain this resistance. Currently, however, there is a battle to increase transparency about the farms to eliminate these problems, especially in the Amazon, which is responsible for 40 percent of the country’s cattle herd. In the region, about 86 million head of cattle graze on 61 million hectares, distributed throughout 400 thousand farms. Pastures are equivalent to two-thirds of the total deforestation in the region, which very frequently is illegal and, in all cases, releases a large amount of smoke when the forest is burned down. To worsen the image of cattle production, the sector also leads the occurrence of slave labor and land tenure conflicts.
Because it is difficult to control so many farmers, pressure against deforestation and slave labor has reached the meat processors (meatpackers) that purchase the cattle from the ranches and supply the meat and sub-products to supermarkets and slaughterhouses and leather to the fashion industry. In 2009, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) in Pará state sued the meatpackers that purchased cattle from areas embargoed due to illegal deforestation and warned the meat and leather purchasers that they could also be sued if they continued to buy from these companies. Furthermore, Greenpeace increased the pressure by protesting against large companies that bought from these meat processors.
To avoid losing business, 13 meatpackers in Pará signed commitments (Conduct Adjustment Agreements, TACs in Portuguese) to not purchase cattle from areas deforested after 2009 and meet other requisites such as being registered under the Rural Environmental Registry, CAR (which contains a map of the farm), not being in Indigenous Land and Conservation Units (where the presence of farms is forbidden), and not being included on IBAMA’s embargo list or the Ministry of Labor’s slave labor list.
Since then, the agreements have spread. Currently, half of the meat processors in the Amazon, representing 70 percent of total slaughter capacity in the region, have signed a Cattle Ranching TAC. For the other half that haven’t signed, representing the other 30 percent of slaughter capacity, we did not find evidence that they are controlling the origin of the cattle.
We visited meatpackers who are not signatories of a TAC in Pará and Mato Grosso and confirmed that they did not have protocols to block ranches that violated labor and environmental laws. Additionally, we interviewed ranchers that affirmed that non-signatories of a TAC bought cattle from ranches that had been dropped by those companies that had signed a TAC. After the agreement, deforestation decreased up to 2012, but has since increased 75 percent as of 2016.
The TACs’ success is limited due to the lack of reliable public information on the farms, the origin of the cattle, and the implementation of the agreements by some of the meat processors.
Some meatpackers that have signed a TAC are checking information on the finishing ranches where they purchase animals for slaughter — in other words, they verify if the ranch is registered under CAR, cross the CAR map with the deforestation map, and check that the ranch is not in areas embargoed by IBAMA and the slave labor list.
However, information on CAR is not entirely reliable, since the registry is merely declaratory. For example, we heard of cases where ranchers left part of the illegal deforestation off the map of their property, but continued to use the area illegally deforested. We also found cases in which the rancher redesigned the map of the property after the first CAR registry to leave out the illegal deforestation. Some ranchers also declared they raise cattle on farms without CAR (including on Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units) and later sell the cattle through farms with CAR, indicating a laundering of illegal cattle.
This type of maneuver probably explains why the rural caucus wants to replace the Minister of Environment after he authorized the disclosure of polygons of real estate registered under CAR — which is only a partial type of transparency, since the ideal scenario would be to disclose who the properties belong to. The fear of transparency made the National Agriculture Confederation — which represents the rural producers — promise to sue the Minister, stating that the “disclosure of this data puts national security at risk.”
This attitude contrasts with the worldwide consensus that land tenure transparency helps business, since it facilitates commercial transactions. There is actually a global real estate transparency index published by the public company JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle), based in London since 1783. Public accessibility to real estate registrations is among the 139 items considered in the index. Of 109 countries, Brazil is classified as semitransparent, occupying the 33rd place, below China in 32nd place. In the United States (fourth on the list), data on the real estate owners and values are available online.
However, even if the CAR maps of the direct suppliers were perfect, verifying the finishing ranches is not enough to stop deforestation. These ranches often buy calves and steers from other farms (called breeding and rearing ranches) that are not verified by the meat processors. The second largest meatpacker in Brazil indicated that 50 percent of the cows slaughtered in its processing plants in the Legal Amazon grazed on only one farm. The other half, according to this meatpacker, went through more than one property before reaching the meat processor. This part of the production remains unknown and is not monitored. Thus, the rancher (an indirect supplier for the meat processor) can deforest and not be detected by the meat processor.
One way to verify the indirect origin of the cattle would be to register the identity and breeding history of each animal. A tracked animal is identified after its birth and receives a marking (such as an earring or a capsule inserted in its stomach) that follows it on all the farms it passes through. The meat processor could check if the animal for slaughter has grazed on a farm that was illegally deforested – assuming the information on the farms and cattle are publicly available.
Brazilian farmers who sell to more demanding markets, such as the European Union, adopt the individual tracking of animals (Brazilian System of Identification and Certification of Bovine and Bubaline Origin — SISBOV). But most farmers do not adopt traceability, since the domestic market, responsible for nearly 80 percent of consumption of Brazilian cattle, does not require it. Furthermore, there was an intense lobbying effort by the rural sector to weaken SISBOV, since cattle production has also been used for tax evasion, money laundering, and corruption, as shown in cases associated with the Car Wash Operation (JBS, Petrobras corruption scheme).
The fear of transparency also led politicians and farmers to bar access to the only governmental data on the transportation of cattle between farms, the Animal Transit Guides (GTA). Before transporting cattle, farmers must fill out the number of animals, age range, destination (whether for finishing on another farm, for slaughter, etc.), and the identification of origin (municipality, name of ranch or meat processor, Tax Payer’s ID Number — CPF and CNPJ) on the guides. This form accompanies the cattle until their destination and the data is then registered by the government to help identify possible sources of disease, such as foot and mouth disease (FMD).
Although the GTA data does not identify each animal individually, it helps identify whether a farm bought from other farms where deforestation occurred and, thus, detect risks. Sanitary surveillance agencies often justify denying public access to GTA by arguing that ranchers would start falsifying the document if they knew the data was used for environmental control. In Pará, however, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office demanded that ADEPARÁ — the agency that issues GTAs in the state — make the GTAs available so that IBAMA could evaluate the sale of cattle in areas embargoed due to illegal deforestation. Based on this information, IBAMA carried out the Carne Fria Operation (i.e. Cold Meat Operation), which targeted embargoed meat processors accused of purchasing cattle from embargoed ranches. Unfortunately, the minister of the Environment released a video stating the operation was untimely since the sector and the national economy were already quite harmed by the Carne Fraca Operation (i.e. Weak Meat Operation), launched a week earlier, which revealed fraud in the governmental inspection of meat quality.
If meat processors in the Amazon operated under maximum production capacity, they could feed 16 million people annually. Therefore, it is a huge risk and cost for the sector to continue to hide its cattle in exchange for unnecessary environmental irregularities. Unnecessary because the Amazon has over 10 million hectares of degraded pasture and recovering parts of it would be enough to triple productivity, increasing profit and reducing pressure on the forest (if connected with enforcement), without the need to cut a single tree down. While this doesn’t happen, farmers who deforest illegally, use labor analogous to slavery, and practice corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering contribute to the negative image of the sector and continue to hide their cattle.
For how long?
When will butcheries, supermarkets, and restaurants in Brazil and the world be proud to show the cattle ranches from which their suppliers buy cattle in the Amazon?
Paulo Barreto and Ritaumaria Pereira are researchers at the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (Imazon).