- A new scorecard ranks major beef retailers such as Sainsbury’s, McDonald’s, Costco, and Carrefour against their own pledges to eliminate deforestation from their supply lines.
- These beef retailers, supermarkets and fast-food chains, are lagging behind industry commitments to be deforestation-free by 2020.
- Imports of beef from Brazil to the United States and Europe are on the rise, linking unwitting customers in developed nations to tropical rainforest destruction.
- Food companies have shown themselves to be sensitive to pressure, responding to shifts in consumer habits and demands.
A new review published by environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth measures 15 of the biggest global food brands by their own commitments to provide consumers with deforestation-free beef products, spotlighting the gap between promises and action.
The companies were selected based on their size and relative impact on forests, their presence in eco-sensitive markets such as the United States and Europe, and their public commitments to eliminate deforestation from their supply lines by 2020—a deadline that has come and gone.
“These are companies that have demonstrated awareness about deforestation risks and should be the leaders in the industry. So we wanted to know, what are these companies doing on beef?” said Lucia von Reusner, a senior campaign director at Mighty Earth, in an interview. Mighty Earth is a global nonprofit specialized in laying tracks for sustainability reform in global agricultural supply chains.
Tesco was ranked first on Mighty Earth’s Beef Scorecard, with 65 points out of 100. It was followed by Marks & Spencer with 62/100 and Carrefour with 61/100.
The lowest-scoring companies were Rewe (9/100), Aldi Süd (14/100), Ahold Delhaize (19/100), and Auchan Retail (24/100)—all four of which lack beef-specific deforestation policies. This fact and the meager points they scored raise questions about whether their public pledges reflect real commitment or amount to greenwashing.
But even the top-scoring companies are far from delivering on their promises to disentangle themselves from forest clearing.
“Supermarkets and fast-food companies are the gatekeepers in the supply chain that can either enforce sustainability standards or continue to allow meat suppliers to sell beef from deforested land to unwitting customers,” von Reusner said.
Other beef sellers are beyond the pale of Mighty Earth’s review, having failed to even draft policies to address supply chain deforestation. Amazon (with its subsidiary Whole Foods, which enjoys a reputation as environmentally conscious) is one such beef powerbroker, with a paltry score of 17% on the Forest 500 ranking of the most influential companies and financial institutions dealing in forest-risk commodities.
None of these scorecard-listed companies could be reached by time of publication for comment.
Companies of every size have felt the pressure to adjust their sourcing policies as consumers become more acutely aware of how they inflect the etiology of the planet’s ecological predicament every time they sit down to eat. Indeed, how we eat may matter more than how we move. Forests hold more carbon than all exploitable fossil fuel reserves put together, and deforestation of tropical rainforests releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than “the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads.”
It is precisely these forests—the ones along the tropical belt—that irresponsible beef sourcing is decimating at a rapid clip. Animal agriculture accounts for 70% to 91% of deforestation in the Amazon. It is also one of the leading causes of climate change.
“The Beef Scorecard is grounded in the recognition that beef is far and away the biggest driver of deforestation in the world and particularly in Latin America,” von Reusner said. “But almost no company in our conversations was taking enough action on the beef supply chain. A lot of attention has been given to mitigating sustainability risks in palm and soy, so we wanted to more comprehensively evaluate how the food industry is addressing problems of deforestation and related human rights abuses in the cattle industry.”
As for why global food companies have been slower to act on beef, von Reusner offers two explanations: First, beef didn’t used to represent such high exposure to deforestation. Second, there haven’t been active campaigns highlighting the issue, a gap the Beef Scorecard was designed to address.
USDA trade data shows that beef and veal imports from Brazil more than quadrupled between 2010 and 2020. Brazil’s biggest meatpackers—JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva, all of which are continually involved in deforestation on a massive scale—today rely on export markets for around half of their total annual revenues.
“Food retailers really react to public awareness and pressure. People have seen the [Jair] Bolsonaro enabling unprecedented burning and clearance of forests across Brazil, and now meat from those destroyed landscapes is traveling to these eco-sensitive markets in Europe and the United States,” von Reusner said.
Scorecard as a tool
Von Reusner is optimistic that tools such as the Beef Scorecard will help these global food behemoths make progress.
“We’ve been quite pleasantly surprised by the response,” she said. “[They all] found it very educational to understand what they need to do to advance action, what their competitors are doing, and how to make the case internally within their companies.”
A Tesco spokesperson said that discussions with Mighty Earth during the development of the Beef Scorecard had been informative and would assist in “tackling deforestation in the future.” In 2018, Tesco became the first UK retailer to stop selling Brazilian meat over concerns of deforestation and today leads the scorecard-listed companies.
Yet, if the beef industry writ large fails to act with the urgency insisted upon by organizations like Mighty Earth, it may find itself losing customers faster than expected.
According to one survey by GlobalData, 70% of people throughout the world reduced their meat consumption in 2018. A Gallup poll found that nearly one in four Americans reported cutting back on meat in 2020. As for what the future may hold, the comprehensive EAT-Lancet Commission plan for eating within planetary boundaries prescribes eating no more than one serving of red meat a week.
Banner image: Cows in Brazil grazing. Beef production is resource-intensive, and five times more greenhouse gas is emitted in the process than for other types of livestock production, but exact environmental costs of beef production are difficult to measure. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.