Tag Archives: deforestation and ranching

The Secrecy Around the Origin of Beef Steaks

Most cows in Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, are grass-fed. Ranchers in the precious biome use bulldozers, machetes, and fire to make room for pastureland—a practice that’s illegal but so widespread that it’s almost impossible for strapped regulatory teams to root out. The sheer size of the country’s beef industry—2.5 million ranchers, 2,500 slaughterhouses, and about 215 million heads of cattle spread across 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers)—is one reason the big meatpackers say they’ve struggled to keep tabs on their suppliers. Another hurdle: Brazil’s government, which requires ranchers to file documents detailing the movements of their cattle, keeps that paperwork largely to itself.

JBS SA, the global beef industry leader, vowed in September 2020  to start monitoring its indirect suppliers—i.e., the farmers who raise the cattle to sell to the folks who sell it to JBS. That followed a similar announcement months earlier from rival Marfrig Global Foods SA. Brazil’s cattle ranches come in all shapes and sizes, from mom and pop farms that ship out calves as soon as they’re born to one-stop shops that breed, fatten, and finish cows all on their own. 

Cattle tagging (think of the microchip a veterinarian might slip under your dog’s skin) is already an established practice in large parts of the global food supply chain. For big farms it would be cheap to implement, costing about 0.5% of an animal’s revenue, according to a report from the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests & Agriculture. Uruguay, a direct competitor to Brazil, was an early adopter in the Americas, making it possible to trace a single cow from birth to plate, says Erasmus zu Ermgassen, a sustainable livestock and supply chain researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

Some cows spend their entire life on one ranch, but that’s pretty rare…Cattle move…as many as six times before they’re slaughtered. That constant shuffling makes it all too easy to hide a cow’s real origin, a practice known as “cattle laundering.”

Each time a cow is moved from one property to another, the state issues a guide to animal transport, or GTA, which identifies the shipping farm, the receiving farm, the number of cattle being moved, and the date of transfer. This process helps ensure the safety of the overall herd in the case of a disease outbreak, but deforestation fighters have also latched on to the documents as a potential key to traceability.

Currently the only people who regularly get to see the GTAs are the ranchers, the drivers moving the cattle, and food sanitation officials. The government says making them more widely available would violate ranchers’ privacy rights, even as the secrecy helps bad actors evade the law.

Excerpt Why it’s hard to stop Amazon deforestation, starting with beef industry, Bloomberg, Dec. 17, 2020

Amazon Rainforest: Source of Food for Vegans, Meat-Lovers

In the first four months of 2020 an estimated 1,202 square km (464 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon, 55% more than during the same period in 2019, which was the worst year in a decade…Less attention has been paid to the role of big firms like JBS and Cargill, global intermediaries for beef and soya, the commodities that drive deforestation.  The companies do not chop down trees themselves. Rather, they are middlemen in complex supply chains that deal in soya and beef produced on deforested land. The process begins when speculators, who tend to operate outside the law, buy or seize land, sell the timber, graze cattle on it for several years and then sell it to a soya farmer. Land in the Amazon is five to ten times more valuable once it is deforested, says Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist. Not chopping down trees would have a large opportunity cost. In 2009 Mr Nepstad estimated that cost (in terms of forgone beef and soy output) would be $275bn over 30 years, about 16% of that year’s GDP.

Under pressure from public opinion, the big firms have made attempts to control the problem. In 2009, a damning report from Greenpeace led JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, meat giants which together handle two-thirds of Brazil’s exports, to pledge to stop buying from suppliers that deforest illegally. (The forest code allows owners to clear 20% of their land.) JBS, which sources from an area in the Amazon larger than Germany, says it has blocked 9,000 suppliers, using satellites to detect clearing.

The problem is especially acute in ranching, which accounts for roughly 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, nearly all of it illegal. “Cows move around,” explains Paulo Pianez of Marfrig. Every fattening farm the big meatpackers buy from has, on average, 23 of its own suppliers. Current monitoring doesn’t cover ranchers who breed and graze cattle, so it misses 85-90% of deforestation. Rogue fattening farms can also “launder” cattle by moving them to lawful farms—perhaps their own—right before selling them. A new Greenpeace report alleges that through this mechanism JBS, Marfrig and Minerva ended up selling beef from farms that deforested a protected Amazon reserve on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. They said they had not known about any illegality.

One reason that soya giants seem more serious than meat producers about reducing deforestation a network of investors concerned about sustainability, is that most soya is exported. The EU is the second-top destination after China. But companies struggle to get people to pay more for a “hidden commodity”… But few people will pay extra for chicken made with sustainable soya, which explains why just 2-3% is certified deforestation-free. ….Four-fifths of Brazilian beef, by contrast, is eaten in Brazil. Exports go mostly to China, Russia and the Middle East, where feeding people is a higher priority than saving trees. Investors, for their part, see beef firms as unsexy businesses with thin margins

According to soya growers, multinational firms failed to raise $250m to launch a fund for compensating farmers who retain woodland. “They demand, demand, demand, but don’t offer anything in return,” complains Ricardo Arioli….

Reducing deforestation will require consensus on tricky issues like the fate of tens of thousands of poor settlers on public lands in the Amazon, where half of deforestation takes place….

Excerpts from The AmazonL Of Chainshaws and Supply Chains, Economist, JUne 13, 2020