BRAZIL’s president Jair Bolsonaro has been called “Captain Chainsaw” for his rhetoric about the need to exploit resources in the Amazon. Many see this as the impetus for the rocketing deforestation and ensuing fires in the rainforest this year.
But there is another side to the story. The forest is often burned to make way for cattle ranches, and much of the meat they produce is sold in other countries – Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of beef. That begs the question: are beef-eaters in countries like the UK and US partly to blame for the rainforest going up in smoke? It turns out the answer could be yes.
An investigation of Brazilian beef supply chains by Trase, a partnership of non-governmental organisations, has found that cattle ranching led to the loss of, on average, 5800 square kilometres of forest each year between 2015 and 2017. This estimate was arrived at by cross referencing beef trade information with high-resolution satellite data showing deforestation.
A single exporting company, JBS, was linked to more than a third of all the deforestation over the period. It has made a commitment to allow zero deforestation in the Amazon. “The problem is the commitment is only partially implemented and limited in scope,” says Erasmus zu Ermgassen at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, who worked on the Trase analysis.
He says that companies tend to check only that their direct suppliers aren’t engaging in deforestation. However, this leaves a blind spot further down the supply chain; those direct suppliers may have got their cattle from other suppliers that use ranches in areas that have been deforested.
JBS’s zero deforestation commitment also applies only to the Amazon. That leaves aside the Cerrado, a huge and highly biologically diverse savannah area in Brazil, where JBS also operates. The Trase analysis found a lot of deforestation linked to cattle ranches in this area.
A spokesperson for JBS says the Trase analysis is misleading and that the firm has an “unwavering commitment to combat, discourage and eliminate deforestation in the Amazon”.
Follow the meat
Who is eating all the meat? In 2017, China was the biggest importer of Brazil’s beef, taking about 38 per cent of it. Egypt and Russia took another 10 per cent each. But high-income countries buy it too. The US imported almost 3 per cent, and though it suspended fresh beef imports in June 2017 over safety concerns, the Trump administration wants to resume them.
The UK imported almost 2 per cent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has found JBS canned beef sold at the Co-op supermarket and supplied to NHS Supply Chain, the company that supplies hospital trusts in England and Wales. The NGO Earthsight has found JBS beef at Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Asda and Morrisons too.
Peter Andrews of the British Retail Consortium says its members, which include these five supermarkets, “take every effort to ensure the products they sell have no links to deforestation”. NHS Supply Chain told the BIJ it was committed to “procuring products responsibly and sustainably”.
This means that consumers and politicians in richer countries could potentially exert leverage to reduce deforestation. “One way forward would be for the EU to ban any beef or soy products from entering the EU that could not be definitively guaranteed as sustainably produced,” says Mark Maslin at University College London.
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