The (Un)Sustainability of the Brazilian Beef Industry

By Abby Neiser

With 215 million grazing on its land in 2018, Brazil has more cows than any country in the world and has roughly the same number of cattle and people (Amnesty International, 2019b).  These cattle inhabit about a fifth of Brazil’s land, and nearly half are in the Amazon region (Amnesty International, 2019b).  The South American nation is the world’s largest beef producer, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that by 2028, Brazil will be responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s beef exports (Zia et. al, 2019).  Beef plays an important role in Brazilian cuisine, with meals such as churrasco and feijoada featuring the meat front and center.  But what is the cost of all of this?  The answer: a lot.

One of the most talked-about consequences of the Brazilian beef industry is deforestation.  As previously mentioned, much of the grazing land is in the Amazon region.  Creating pastures in this area requires cutting down the trees that make up the rainforest.  Not only is the forest vegetation destroyed, but cattle farmers and land-stealing grileiros also set the cleared area on fire before bringing in the cattle (Mazzetti, 2020).  Some of these fires were responsible for the massive forest fires that captured the world’s attention in 2019 (Amnesty International, 2019a).  With 63% of deforestation in the Amazon between 1988 and 2014 being to make cow pastures, the beef industry is responsible for a deforested area the size of Washington state, or five times the area of Portugal (Amnesty International, 2019a; Mazzetti, 2020).  The Amazon is an important carbon sink and oxygen producer for the entire world, and cattle ranching both directly and indirectly contributes to the destruction of this globally critical environment.  In fact, Brazil and Indonesia combined accounted for 40 percent of global deforestation-related carbon emissions between 2010 and 2014, totaling about a gigaton of carbon produced (Sullivan, 2019).

Deforestation contributes substantially to the loss of biodiversity in the Amazon, as evidenced by the case of the Serra Ricardo Franco State Park.  This park is located at the juncture between the Amazon, the Cerrado, and the Pantanal (Mazetti, 2020).  About a quarter of Brazil’s bird species and many other endangered species are found in the park, making it an important area for the conservation of these species (Mazzetti, 2020).  However, lax enforcement of environmental laws has allowed for almost a quarter of the park to be deforested, harming the wildlife living there in the process (Mazzetti, 2020).  Serra Ricardo Franco State Park is one of many habitats that has been disrupted by deforestation, and other places are similarly affected.  The world is currently experiencing a mass extinction of species, and experts attribute deforestation for agriculture as the main cause (Carrington, 2018).  Since the beef industry is the driving force behind much of the deforestation in Brazil, it is also a major contributing factor to the rapid diminishment of biodiversity that the world has witnessed during this mass extinction.

The fallout of deforestation is only the beginning of the negative impact that the beef industry has had on humans, particularly Indigenous people.  Cattle ranchers and grileiros seemingly will not stop at anything to steal land to destroy for beef grazing, up to and including assassinating people who try to push back (Baines, 2013).  One example of just how devastating the encroachment of outsiders trying to steal land can be is the Guarani people.  The Guarani live in seven different states in Brazil and are the largest Indigenous group in the country (The Guarani).  They are known for their quest to find “the land without evil,” though unfortunately oftentimes throughout their history, evil has come to them (The Guarani).  The murder rate among this population is twenty times higher than the state of São Paulo (Baines, 2013).  In part due to these outside invasions and their consequences, the suicide rate among Guarani people is 34 times higher than the Brazilian average (Baines, 2013).

Another heartbreaking example is the Akuntsu people, who live in a small area of the Amazon near the Bolivian border (The Akuntsu).  Only five Akuntsu people survived after a 1995 invasion of their land by cattle ranchers (Uncontacted tribes).  Not only did the ranchers steal the land, but they also killed nearly the entire tribe and tore down their houses, attempting to essentially destroy any evidence that the tribe had ever existed (Uncontacted tribes).  Unfortunately, neither of these tribes’ fates is particularly unique.  In a 2019 Amnesty International investigation, ten Indigenous leaders from four different areas reported either threats or acts of intimidation (Amnesty International, 2019a).  One area that they visited, the Rio Jacy-Paraná Reserve, had been almost completely taken over by farmers and grileiros, making it impossible for Indigenous people to live there (Amnesty International, 2019a).  All of these areas are supposed to be protected by the government, but their inhabitants have often had to fend for themselves, with the government sometimes even on the other side.  Such has especially been the case under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has gained a reputation for wanting to open the Amazon to economic development, no matter the cost.  The current Brazilian government is so uncommitted to enforcing the protection of these territories that over a thousand people invaded the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous territory under the assumption that they could simply walk in and get the rights to the land from the government (Amnesty International, 2019a).  Even in places where Indigenous inhabitants are not completely evicted from their land, cattle ranching still has a crushing impact.  Pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture contaminate food and water, which led to the deaths of 80 Indigenous children between 2004 and 2008 (Baines, 2013).  In short, the beef industry in its current state is an existential threat to Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon, and the government turning a blind eye to—or even tacitly endorsing—these practices is equivalent to complicity in genocide (Londoño & Casado, 2020).

Given how many illegal and unethical practices are linked to the Brazilian cattle ranching, it is unsurprising that other aspects of the industry are also sketchy.  One of the most problematic industry practices is “cattle laundering.”  Meat processing facilities are required to know the farm from which they directly purchase their cattle, or, in other words, their final destination (Sullivan, 2019).  The law theoretically prevents processing plants from purchasing meat that had been raised on deforested land, but the industry has taken advantage of the loophole that only the last stop is regulated (Sullivan, 2019).  Thus, many ranchers primarily graze their cows on deforested land only to later sell them to farms that meet government regulations right before purchase from the packaging plant (Eisenhammer, 2020).  The process is depicted in the graphic below:

(Mazzetti, 2020)

Because of this practice, Paulo Barreto, a researcher on land use in the Amazon says, “No meat processor can say their cattle are deforestation-free” (Eisenhammer, 2020).  Additionally, companies in the industry have been accused of other unethical actions, including slave-labor-like working conditions and spraying people attempting to retake their land with pesticides (Phillips et. al, 2019).  While laws technically exist to prevent all of the problems with the beef industry, in practice, the enforcement of these regulations is so lax that ranchers can—quite literally—get away with murder.

Some efforts have been made or proposed to make the Brazilian beef industry more sustainable and ethical.  Perhaps most surprisingly, one of the largest beef producers, JBS, has taken its own initiative to improve its environmental impact.  The company plans to switch completely to renewable energy and zero out their emissions by 2040 as well as help with reforestation efforts (Mano & Figueiredo, 2021).  Major U.S. companies, including Nike, Timberland, and Wal-Mart, have also attempted to shift market demand by only buying certified deforestation-free cattle products (Sarma, 2014).  Other proposed solutions include tagging and geotracking cows from birth, more efficiently using already-cleared land, and credit plans for low-carbon agriculture (Ingraham, 2019; Pacheco, 2017; Sullivan, 2019).  However great these sound in theory, most of these measures will be difficult to implement in practice, especially given how powerful and unregulated the industry currently is.  For example, a credit plan for low-carbon agriculture called Agricultura de Baixo Carbono was introduced under a previous administration, but requirements such as land titles made it difficult for farmers to qualify to receive the benefits (Pacheco, 2017).  Similarly, startup costs and training for more efficient ranching practices are too high to be attractive to most ranchers (Ingraham, 2019).  Moreover, though the problems posed by the beef industry are urgent, the chances of a government-backed solution being introduced by the current administration are virtually nonexistent.

The World Wildlife Fund points to some potential benefits of the beef industry, specifically for grazing cattle as is commonly done in Brazil.  Cow manure is good for the quality of soil, and grass pastures can sequester carbon (Sustainable Agriculture).  Properly managed pastures can actually contribute—rather than diminish—conservation efforts and biodiversity (Sustainable Ranching Initiative).  Silvopasture, which allows cows to graze among trees and other plants instead of clearing out a space for them, is another more sustainable option that has even been successfully implemented in parts of Colombia (Sustainable Cattle Ranching Pays off for Colombian Farmers, 2020).  Additionally, ranching puts food on the table for many Brazilian families and contributes to the livelihood and culture of the country (Sustainability Agriculture).

Most of the concern for the sustainability of the Brazilian beef industry revolves around deforestation.  We, as humans, tend to be shocked by environmental devastation that we can easily visualize.  Aerial shots of a bare rainforest or images of the Amazon burning evoke outrage even among people who do not normally think about ecological issues.  While there is no doubt that deforestation and forest fires warrant anger and swift action, a major question with the Brazilian beef industry is whether focusing on these symptoms is merely obscuring from the greater issue.  The truth of the matter is that deforestation and all of the human and environmental costs that come with it are only a small piece of the puzzle in the greater issue of the sustainability of beef.  Beef requires 160 times more land and produces 11 times more greenhouse gases than crops such as rice, wheat, and potatoes (Carrington, 2014).  In fact, meat and dairy combined are responsible for 60 percent of agriculture-related emissions (Carrington, 2011).  Beef is also one of the most inefficient forms of food.  One pound of beef produced requires six pounds of food and thousands of gallons of water (Molidor, 2018).  Improper disposal of waste, whether directly from the cow or from processing facilities for meat and leather, can lead to significant pollution (Sustainable Agriculture).  Soil erosion from grazing can also cause harm to land that can take centuries to rectify (Sustainable Agriculture).  Grass-fed beef, such as that which is commonly raised in Brazil, is generally perceived as a more sustainable option (Molidor, 2018).  However, the water demand for grass-fed beef is five times greater than factory-farmed beef, and the land required is far too much to be implemented worldwide (Molidor, 2018).  All of these environmental consequences are especially important in the context of the current rate of global population growth and the climate crisis.  If all of the crops grown for livestock consumption were instead fed to humans, it would be enough to feed four billion people (University of Minnesota, 2014).  Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion (2050: A third more mouths to feed, 2009).  With all of these statistics considered, it is unsurprising that Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore went as far as to say, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use” (Carrington, 2018).  While veganism certainly has many of its own issues, the science is clear about the impact of these animal products in the way that they are currently being produced, and something needs to change.

As climate change threatens water supplies and how much land is usable for agriculture, relying heavily on an extremely inefficient food source that actively contributes to global warming simply does not make sense.  Beef is an unsustainable food source to begin with, and the problems specific to Brazil make it even less sustainable.  Even if more effective ranching, reforestation efforts, and justice for Indigenous people were enacted, it would still only put a dent in the industry’s sustainability issues.  Nonetheless, cattle ranching comes at a difficult intersection between sustainability, culture, and economics.  On one hand, current or increased levels of beef consumption are unsustainable, but on the other, beef is an important aspect of many cultures, including Brazilian culture, and provides livelihoods for ranchers.  A huge question going forward is how these elements can be balanced.  Will culture be able to adapt to the necessities of fighting climate change?  Will more sustainable ranching practices be developed so that people can have their cake and eat it, too?  Or will our dietary preferences be strong enough that we are willing to sacrifice our planet for it?

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


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