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Why beef and soya farming must change to tackle Amazon deforestation

Dry Woods

The link between emissions, deforestation, beef and soya

If you were looking for a silver lining to the Covid-19-cloud, you might be encouraged by the fact that global CO2 emissions reduced by 8.8% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period last year. However, one country that bucks the global trend in Brazil, which will produce an estimated 10-20% more climate-warming gases in 2020. This is mainly due to increased levels of deforestation and farming.


Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was up 55% in the first four months of the year compared to 2019, which was itself the worst year in a decade. In 2019, deforestation was responsible for a staggering 44% of Brazil's total CO2 emissions. But it wasn’t that long ago that Brazil was successfully tackling the issue. There had been some progress between 2004 and 2012, as the country managed to consistently reduce emissions, driven partly by agreements made in the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.


Another agreement made that year was for the three biggest meat exporters in Brazil - JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva - to pledge to stop buying from suppliers that deforest illegally. Soya traders, such as Cargill and Bunge, made similar promises in 2008, following pressure from consumer brands including Tesco and McDonald's. No wonder these agreements led to reduced deforestation, as beef and soya are the two main drivers of land clearing in the Amazon. A common practice is for speculators to buy or seize land, chop down trees, graze cattle on it for a few years, then sell it for soya farming. But pressure from the big firms downstream did see some improvements.


Unfortunately, this trend has been reversed, with many pointing to Brazil's populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his policy of deregulation, especially regarding environmental laws. But the private sector is to blame too. Big firms are not exerting enough pressure on suppliers, and much beef and soya are traded by smaller firms, who have weaker incentives to persuade farmers to act more responsibly.

Industry-wide progress is both essential and problematic

Even if the public sector and big private sector firms tried to exert control over the issue, it remains extremely challenging to monitor all the players involved. This is a particular problem with ranching, which is responsible for about 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, nearly all of which is illegal. Current monitoring doesn’t cover ranchers, who breed and graze the cattle, and so actually misses out on the majority of deforestation.


One reason that big meat firms may be dragging their feet is that 80% of Brazilian beef is eaten in Brazil and its exports mainly go to China, Russia and the Middle East. There is less consumer pressure in these places, as feeding people is a more urgent priority than saving trees. Soya firms are seen as more committed to reducing deforestation, probably because the EU, which does have strong consumer pressure on the issue, is the second biggest importer of Brazilian soya. However, with 95% of tree clearing on soya farms being illegal, there is a long way to go.


The fact of the matter is that we just don’t know which firms use suppliers that have been involved with illegally deforested land. Most beef exporters only record where the cattle were fattened, not where they were reared, and this is often very different. In fact, there is even a practice of “laundering” cattle by moving them to legally cleared land just before they are sold. Current methods are struggling to account for this. Satellite images can help spot areas cleared for farming, but they cannot prove links between specific companies and farms.


JBS, Minerva and Marfrig claim that none of their direct suppliers use deforested land. However, gaining end-to-end traceability in these supply chains is incredibly complicated. The further you get from the main brands, the more diluted and dispersed the data becomes These direct suppliers get most of their beef from firms who don’t rear all their cattle themselves. And these upstream suppliers are even harder to monitor. In order to achieve full traceability, we need industry-wide progress, not just the biggest brands.

The right intentions and the right technology may be the solution

The big meat firms have claimed they are working towards expanding traceability to indirect suppliers. A possible method is to use animal-transit permits, which track vaccinations as cattle are passed between ranchers, to flag deforestation. But this has yet to be signed off. Minerva is exploring a tool from the University of Wisconsin, which maps suppliers, identifies areas with high deforestation and priorities suppliers from elsewhere.


There is certainly some low-hanging fruit for improvement. In the soya industry, 80% of illegal deforestation happens on only 2% of the total number of farms. One way to help get the farms on board is for big firms to compensate them for maintaining the forest on their land. There have been some proposals on this, but farmers have claimed that the promised funds never materialised.


The power that the big brands hold in the situation has been made apparent on a number of occasions. A recent bill in the Brazilian congress, aimed at making forest clearing easier, was rejected after a number of British supermarkets threatened to boycott Brazilian products if it passed. Furthermore, after JBS, Minerva and Marfrig pledged to drop suppliers involved in deforestation, more than 30 other beef firms signed similar agreements.


It seems a mix of the right intentions and actions from key players, as well as the right tools and technology to support this, could lead to real change.

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