- An online tool developed last year by the NGO Global Witness aims to monitor and expose deforestation linked to the indirect supply chain of Brazilian meat company JBS.
- Brazil Big Beef Watch, a Twitter bot, uses satellite data and cattle transit permit data to identify whether a ranch where deforestation was detected is part of JBS’s supply chain.
- Environmentalists have often criticized JBS, the world’s biggest meat producer, for being opaque about its indirect supply chain and its inability to take action.
- The new tool, Global Witness says, aims to serve as a way to call on JBS to take action and for the company’s financers to stop backing it until JBS can prove that its supply chain is deforestation-free.
Elon Musk may claim to hate them, but can Twitter bots be put to good use? A new tool that aims to monitor and expose deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest might be showing the way.
Brazil Big Beef Watch is an automated Twitter account that alerts the public to deforestation linked to the indirect supply chain of meatpacking giant JBS in the Brazilian state of Pará. Developed by international NGO Global Witness, the tool employs deforestation alerts and cattle transit permit data to identify whether a ranch where deforestation took place is part of JBS’s indirect supply chain. It then shares the information through automatically generated tweets.
Apart from spreading awareness among the general public, Global Witness developed the tool to serve as a way to call on JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, to take action and become more transparent about its supply chain.
The tool has been collecting data since 2022 and, according to a press release by Global Witness, found at least 61 instances of deforestation last year in the northern state of Pará, averaging 46 hectares (114 acres) of land cleared every single week in this one state alone. The data were made public, via the Twitter account, in late April this year.
“The frequency of these deforestation events that have a link to the indirect supply chain is striking,” Cassie Dummett, forests campaign strategy lead at Global Witness, told Mongabay in a video interview. “There is a total disconnect between the level of apparent risk from the information that is available and JBS’s complacency about the action they are taking regarding their supply chain.”
In 2020, JBS pledged to monitor its entire supply chain by 2025, a move prompted by mounting pressure on the company to better track indirect supplier farms that cut down forests and convert them into pastures for cattle grazing. That pledge was a refurbished version of another commitment that the company had made in 2009 and failed to deliver on.
Activists have long criticized the lack of transparency from JBS and the company’s inability to track its indirect suppliers, many of whom are believed to be linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Environmentalists and politicians in Brazil have long accused meatpackers like JBS of a practice dubbed “cattle laundering,” in which cows reared on deforested lands are moved to ranches with no forest loss linked to them. This practice ensures that, by the time the cattle reach the slaughterhouse, their provenance has been obscured and any links to deforested land are erased.
Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest, which straddles nine countries. In recent years, researchers have issued dire warnings about the destruction of the Amazon and have called for stringent measures to be taken for its protection. Keeping better track of the movement of cattle, especially in the indirect supply chain of meat companies, is key to this objective.
According to a newly published study in the journal Global Environmental Change, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could be reduced by half if companies in the cattle industry pledged to, and strictly implemented, strong zero-deforestation commitments. Holly Gibbs, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Geography, told Mongabay that this would only be possible if all stakeholders involved come together to take action. Another study, also co-authored by Gibbs and published in October 2022 in the journal Conservation Letters, documents the sale of millions of animals reared in protected areas to slaughterhouses, largely from indirect purchases.
“No matter how well companies exclude direct suppliers with deforestation, it will still enter their supply chains,” Gibbs told Mongabay in an email interview. “Monitoring direct suppliers while ignoring indirect suppliers is like running your air conditioning on high but leaving all your windows open.”
It’s this gap that Brazil Big Beef Watch is trying to fill.
“JBS and other meat companies have claimed that it is difficult to monitor their indirect supply chain,” Ben Ayre, head of data investigations at Global Witness, told Mongabay in a video interview. “Our intent with this tool is to demonstrate that there is sufficient available data in order to monitor those farms and detect deforestation in those farms.”
Even prior to the tool’s launch, Global Witness used similar data for its reports. But it was an inclination among team members to use the data in a more timely and responsive manner that led to the development of Brazil Big Beef Watch.
“There wasn’t really any means by which to take the pulse of the issue,” Ayre said. “We felt this was potentially a more effective vehicle to get the information out than the traditional approach of writing longform reports.”
In its current form, Ayre calls the tool an “exploratory exercise” to see how the data can prompt a debate and get people engaged with the information. The tool uses weekly deforestation alerts from MapBiomas, a collaborative initiative between NGOs and universities in Brazil that use satellite imagery to gather the data. On detecting an alert, the tool parses cattle transit permit data to identify whether the farms where deforestation was detected are part of JBS’s supply chain. If the tool makes a positive identification, it alerts the team at Global Witness; the team then authorizes the posting of an automatically generated tweet.
“There are various attributes, including the age and gender of the cattle in question, that allow you to detect the nature of the movement,” Ayre said. “Tying all of this information together, you can traverse through these different links in the network and find out the farms that are supplying to the direct suppliers.”
JBS, in a response to a request from Global Witness for comment, called the methodology “confusing and opaque.” In an emailed statement to Mongabay, the company said it has requested a meeting with the NGO to understand the methodology and “assess its legal and technical applicability.”
The team at Global Witness say they stand by their approach, adding that the organization uses the best available information to ascertain the data. They, in fact, point to a new regulation in the European Union as to why such tools are important. In April this year, the European Parliament adopted a landmark legislation that requires importing companies to prove that their products aren’t sourced from deforested land.
“It’s a major shift in the regulatory environment,” said Dummett from Global Witness. “JBS will have to comply with that order to trade in the European Union, and from our data, they are very far behind in terms of regulatory compliance, and not just ethical and environmental terms.”
Dummett said she’s positive Brazil Big Beef Watch will grow over time, and could be scaled up to include other meatpackers across different jurisdictions in Brazil. Until then, she said, their goal is clear.
“We will keep pushing out information that will increase the pressure on JBS,” she said. “We are also calling on their financial backers to stop financing them until they are able to prove that their supply chain is deforestation free.”
Banner image: Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Image by fabifer via Pixabay (Public domain).
Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @AbhishyantPK.
Levy, S. A., Cammelli, F., Munger, J., Gibbs, H. K., & Garrett, R. D. (2023). Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could be halved by scaling up the implementation of zero-deforestation cattle commitments. Global Environmental Change, 80, 102671. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2023.102671
West, T. A., Rausch, L., Munger, J., & Gibbs, H. K. (2022). Protected areas still used to produce Brazil’s cattle. Conservation Letters, 15(6). doi:10.1111/conl.12916