To (m)eat or not to (m)eat: What is at steak?

Post in collaboration with Peter May

Brazil has recently emerged as one of the world’s primary sources of meat, with expanding cattle ranches and intensified swine and chicken operations. Since 1990 beef production in Brazil has more than doubled (104% increase) and the country is now the world’s second largest meat producer (after the United States) and is tied with India as primary exporter. Hong Kong, China, Russia, Egypt, United States and the United Kingdom are Brazil’s principal meat trading partners. Ranchers expect that Brazil will soon outstrip the United States in production. But what is “at steak”?

Land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) represents as much as 65% of Brazil’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the Amazon forest – the largest remaining tropical forest in the world – accounts for around two-thirds of LULUCF emissions. Much of the deforestation in the country stems from the promotion of private livestock production. Besides being one of the main drivers of deforestation, cattle ranching is also a major source of methane emissions, contributing to global climate change. More than 40% of Brazil’s beef cattle are raised in the Amazon and around two thirds of deforested areas in the biome were converted to pasture between 2004 and 2014.

Opening the meat box

“Weak Flesh”, a two-year federal police investigation currently underway in Brazil, dramatized the corruption and unsanitary conditions that permeate meat supply chains, endangering human health both in Brazil and worldwide. The investigation found that Brazil’s largest meatpackers – JBS and BRF, which are both publicly traded global corporations – and other companies had bribed inspectors to permit rotten and contaminated meat to be exported or sold in-country for school lunches. Dozens of federal inspectors were arrested, accused of having ignored the adulteration or expiration of processed foods and of falsifying sanitary permits.

JBS is one of the world’s largest meat producers, having expanded its foreign holdings recently to include the United States chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride, Argentina’s Swift/Armour and Canadian ranches. BRF is a major meat exporter to the Middle East and Asia. JBS alone is responsible for around 60% of animals slaughtered in the Amazon. Crop production accounts for a considerably smaller share of the deforested area, since it usually occupies already deforested land, while cattle ranching tends to encroach directly on forest areas. Although deforestation had declined from 2010 to 2015 due to a combination of stronger enforcement and lower commodity prices, recent figures show an upswing of 26%. This presages a worsening of the driving forces behind Brazil’s continued rainforest destruction attributed in large measure to the livestock industry.

Despite legally-enforced ‘zero deforestation agreements’ signed by the largest meatpacking enterprises in 2009, beef exporters continued to accept cattle from illegally deforested areas. Under such agreements, companies commit to accept animals only from suppliers registered under the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) that have agreed both to refrain from illegal logging and to reduce deforestation where it is still permitted by the national forest code. But in practice most of the cattle is laundered: cattle are often reared on illegally deforested land and then are moved to legal, registered ranches prior to being brought to slaughter. Recent evidence suggests that the CAR may have been used to facilitate land grabbing by criminal gangs in Pará, the main cattle ranching state in Brazil. Landholders there are accused of having created false CARs to continue deforesting untitled lands.

To add insult to injury, cattle ranching in the Amazon also involves high rates of labour conditions akin to slavery. Research has uncovered clandestine airstrips built by some large producers to transport heavy weapons and ammunition in addition to supplies for livestock production. Large ranchers, such as the Santa Bárbara Group in Pará, have been accused in several instances of having used slave labour on their premises, where many workers perform their duties under armed observation.

This all spells trouble for Brazil’s struggling economy and for the lucrative agribusiness industry, one of the few relatively stable economic sectors in the country. It also disturbs beef packers’ market valuation, fostering the spectre of import bans on meat from Brazil. Even more importantly, it calls into question why the National Development Bank (BNDES) – which is funded by the Brazilian National Treasury out of tax revenues – leveraged JBS and BRF in their recent global shopping spree to buy out overseas market leaders. Finally, it also raises issues of BNDES’ legitimacy in its management of the Amazon Fund, the widely acclaimed national results-based payment mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).

Shifting our diets is urgent

The livestock sector’s contribution to global climate change is undeniable – GHG emissions are estimated to account for 14,5% of global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector. If we take in account the indirect emissions from land use changes to account for the feed industry, then we are looking at up to 30% of total global. Its role in providing protein to feed us is equally self-evident. FAO says the world needs to produce at last 50% more food by 2050 and that global meat consumption will reach 460 million tones in 2050, an increase of 65% on 2009. Some of the projections are quite scary – China’s meat consumption could double by 2030, for example. What are the options, then, to respond to growing demand for meat while avoiding further deforestation, ranching-related GHG emissions and associated social costs? Is it possible to reduce GHG emissions while meeting the protein needs of a global population that is projected to swell by another two billion people by 2050?

Recent analyses suggest that, without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption, it is unlikely global temperature rise can be kept below two degrees Celsius. Governments and environmental groups have proven to be reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns aiming to shift consumer behaviour. Knowledge on how best to reduce meat and dairy consumption is hampered by insufficient research funding. In addition, food choices tend to be shaped by taste, price, health and food safety, leaving climate change as a secondary consideration. Nevertheless, some of the greatest potential for behaviour change appears to lie in emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China.

To curtail livestock expansion, associated deforestation and its contribution to GHG emissions, the most important source of pressure must come from the major slaughterhouses themselves, as well from beef buyers and importing countries that insist on certified origin, transparency and safe labour conditions. Unfortunately, the Brazilian government has been unable to build an adequate traceability system to identify cattle origin due to vested interests in the current, chaotic status quo. Landholders also resist attempts to increase transparency, given that cattle ranching is often a means for money laundering and tax evasion. But if importing countries, major buyers and the finance sector firmly demand to know where and how cattle were raised, transparency is bound to improve.

For example, in response to the import requirements made by the European Union (EU), the Brazilian government enacted Law 12.097 in 2009, which demands traceability of the beef supply chain. Following EU requirements, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock established a task force with the objective of developing, improving and maintaining a cattle breeding and rearing information system, including registration of rural properties, control of animal transport (Animal Transit Guide, GTA) and services toward productive chain traceability.

This shows that Brazil will respond to international pressure. But the problem lies beyond external influence, since the tracking of individual animals still only exists ‘on paper’: it is expensive and far from the large-scale implementation needed for true transparency. Effective traceability is hampered by the fact that the GTA database is not publicly available (not even to the meatpacking companies) and the CAR database is poorly maintained and disconnected from the GTA data and from the federal agricultural management platform created to track cattle production.

Meat consumers of the world, unite!

Brazil is among the top 10 emitters of GHG emissions in the world, but Brazilians are not alone in driving Amazon deforestation. Nor can Brazil take sole responsibility for fixing these problems. Without addressing the chief driver of meat production – our consumption habits – we cannot radically reduce GHG emissions. Integrated crop-livestock-forestry systems, innovative technologies and awareness of other sources of protein are urgently needed. Better feed and breeding techniques may help. But food production factors must be considered jointly with consumption patterns: to link sustainable production with changes to diets. Indeed, the Paris Agreement recognizes the need to make both production processes and lifestyles more sustainable. Therefore, we call for more targeted research on consumers’ behaviour and values, awareness about protein futures beyond livestock intensification, publicity on the role livestock plays in driving climate change, shared responsibility between producers and consumers, and technology transfer.

For consumers, the questions persist: Do you know where the meat you eat comes from and what is ‘at steak’? Isn’t it time to cut back on your meat consumption?



3 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s