Cattle ranching is the biggest cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, as almost two-thirds of forest cleared becomes grassland used to graze around 60 million cattle. But a recent analysis has shown that voluntary zero-deforestation agreements, signed by the three largest beef suppliers in Brazil, have actually had an effect in reducing forest clearance.
In 2009, the major meatpacking companies in the beef production industry of Brazil—JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva—agreed on a pledge to only buy cattle from ranches that reduced deforestation on their land to zero. They did this due to pressure from the government, NGOs, and an increase in consumer awareness on the environmental impacts. This new study looked at the land use data before and after 2009 in the Northern state of Pará, where deforestation was highest, to see if the agreement made any impact on the landscape. What they found was surprisingly positive.
The study looked at the main supplier, JBS-Friboi, and found that they “actively excluded ranches with deforestation from their supply chain, signaling to ranchers that deforestation means reduced market access,” according to the researchers. They also encouraged their beef suppliers to sign up to the environmental registry (CAR), allowing further traceability of cattle.
The report, published in Conservation Letters, found that ‘recent deforestation’ on ranches that supplied JBS had dropped from 36% in 2009 to an amazing 4% by 2013. “We see that the ranchers that continue to sell to JBS after the agreement reduced their deforestation rates dramatically and had much lower deforestation rates than properties that sold before the agreement,” Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Guardian.
The success, Gibbs claims, is partly down to the fact that the large meat suppliers simply have more influence over the ranches than the government, and have the ability to stop market access for individual farms. Over 85% of the ranchers claimed that they signed the agreements to allow them to continue selling cattle to JBS.
The system, however, is not watertight. The team point out that the current state of affairs still leaves room for cattle laundering. This is when cattle might be raised and fattened on a farm that has not signed the agreement, and then sold or moved to a CAR-registered ranch to then go to the slaughterhouse. According to Gibbs, this could be overcome by having a national database of cattle that logs where the animals are and when they move, with open access for the public.
Another issue is that although this might be good news, as the meatpacking companies involved are the biggest in Brazil, they still only account for around 50% of meat production in the country. This still leaves a lot of farms that have not signed up to the zero-deforestation terms. However, what this study does show is that change is possible, and not over a period of years as is generally expected, but over months.