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Brazilian meat giant JBS expands its reach in China

  • Brazilian meatpacker JBS has agreed to supply WH Group, a Hong Kong-based meat processor with access to retail outlets across China, with beef, pork and poultry products worth around $687 million a year beginning in 2020.
  • Investigations have shown that JBS sources some of its beef from producers who have been fined for illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
  • The push for cattle pasture drives most of the deforestation in the Amazon, while soybean plantations to supply pig and chicken feed have replaced large tracts of the wooded savannas of the Cerrado.

JBS SA, a Brazilian meatpacking company dogged by its links to deforestation, recently signed a deal that would put its products in more than 60,000 shops and markets around China.

On Jan. 27, JBS agreed to supply WH Group, a Hong Kong-based meat processor with access to those retail outlets, with beef, pork and poultry products worth around 3 billion reais ($687 million) a year beginning in 2020. The move follows a deal in November between JBS and China-based Alibaba worth $1.5 billion, Euromeat News reported.

Demand for meat in China has risen, tracking the country’s growing incomes.

“We have seen changes in the Chinese consumer profile regarding protein consumption and a growing concern for food quality, product traceability and enhanced food safety,” said Renato Costa, president of Friboi, JBS’s beef division, according to the news site just-food.

Cattle in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

A 2019 epidemic of African swine fever killed or forced the culling of tens of millions of pigs in China, severely impacting domestic supply in the world’s biggest pork market.

JBS is the world’s largest meatpacker, and Brazil exports more beef than any other country. But environmental and watchdog NGOs say those superlatives have come at the cost of the country’s forests. Clearance for cattle pasture in the Amazon causes most of the deforestation there, and soy plantations to supply pig and chicken feed now blanket ever-growing expanses of the Cerrado’s wooded savannas.

In mid-2019, researchers from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, an initiative of the NGO Amazon Conservation, showed that many of the summer fires in the Brazilian Amazon were likely set on previously cleared lands to make way for cattle pastures.

Probes into the supply chains of JBS have turned up evidence that its suppliers fatten their cattle on illegally deforested lands.

The wooded grassland of the Cerrado. Image by C2rik via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

A September 2019 investigation by Repórter Brasil and Mongabay revealed that the Brazilian government had sanctioned José Ronan Martins da Cunha, a cattle supplier to JBS who operates in the state of Pará in the Amazon, for clearing forest in a conservation area. JBS also paid more than $8 million in fines in 2017 for buying 50,000 cattle from ranches where the Amazon forest once stood, according to the NGO Earthsight.

The company denied the charges in both cases.

In this new deal with WH Group, JBS now has a retail partner that has yet to make a zero-deforestation pledge, according to Chain Reaction Research, a U.S.-based sustainability risk analysis group. The group also noted that WH Group, a meat processor that sells its products under dozens of different brand names, received a score of 0% for managing the forest risk in its supply chains from the Global Canopy’s Forest 500 program. JBS scored 39%.

JBS did sign a zero-deforestation pledge in 2009. Though some research has shown that the company changed its policies in the wake of that decision, other investigations have revealed that deforestation in its supply chains continues under its watch.

Pasture and transition forest in the Cerrado. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

A report by a group of NGOs known as Trase connected JBS’s beef exports in 2017 to 240 square kilometers (93 square miles) of “deforestation risk” — that is, pastures in parts of Brazil that are at high risk of deforestation. That’s around a third of the estimated deforestation driven by Brazil’s cattle industry each year.

To some, it’s also evidence that JBS’s zero-deforestation pledge doesn’t go far enough in rooting out the causes of forest destruction in the complex networks involved in getting beef — not to mention pork and chicken — from ranches, farms and feedlots to grocery stores and supermarkets.

“The problem is the commitment is only partially implemented and limited in scope,” Erasmus zu Ermgassen at Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain, an agricultural researcher involved in the Trase investigation, told New Scientist magazine.

Banner image of a soy plantation in the Amazon Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay. 

Citation:

Gibbs, H. K., Munger, J., L’Roe, J., Barreto, P., Pereira, R., Christie, M., … Walker, N. F. (2016). Did ranchers and slaughterhouses respond to zero-deforestation agreements in the Brazilian Amazon? Conservation Letters, 9(1), 32-42. doi:10.1111/conl.12175

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