The Effects of Cattle Ranching in South America

June 15, 2016

Among the many controversial interactions the US has had with Latin American countries, perhaps one of the most dangerous is the US relationship with meat producers in South America. The US is the highest consumer of meat in the world, with the average American consuming 101 pounds of meat each year, a number which has quadrupled since the 1960s. While the US is still the largest producer of meat in the world, countries such as Argentina and Brazil are closing the gap. In the past, the FDA had banned meat coming from these countries because of health regulations and fear of the spread of hand, foot, and mouth diseases which broke out in the US in 2001 after infected Argentine meat made its way to the US. Earlier in 2015, the Obama administration lifted this ban.2

So why is this a controversial deal? Meat production in the US is not only rapidly depleting our underground water sources but is also contaminating creeks and rivers and nearby pig and cattle farms because of the unprocessed animal waste left from the farms. At around 125,000 gallons of water per animal, our addiction to meat is also affecting the rest of our agricultural sector. There are farms that exist specifically for the raising of livestock, whose only purpose is to put a considerable amount of the weight on an animal before they head to slaughter.  These farms are known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. An average CAFO will go through 450 tons of feed a day, meaning our corn, and other crops, are feeding our cows and pigs, instead of going directly to market. CAFOs and other such farms take up 70% of all agricultural land and use the most resources while also supplying an unhealthy amount of methane into the atmosphere.1

If beef production is this dangerous in the US, now imagine how beef production would look like in a country like Brazil, with fewer health and environmental regulations. As of now, Brazil is the second largest producer of meat behind the US, and they plan to keep growing. As in the US, a CAFO in Brazil gives 48 pounds of food per animal every hour, a rate that sounds outrageous but is completely normal in this industry. The meat processing plants in Brazil are also operated on extremely large scales, some of them receiving 1,300 livestock each day, butchering them at a rate of one every 30 seconds.

While there are environmental risks in the US, Brazil faces another challenge: the Amazon. Rapid deforestation of the Amazon can no longer be ignored and about 2/3rds of all deforestation in this region is caused by cattle farming. With the demand for beef growing and its prices going down, countries like Brazil are further incentivized by US demand to continue growing this agricultural sector. With the meat ban lifted on both Argentina and Brazil, the question remains as to how large the beef industry will grow in South America. The worldwide hunger for beef is outweighing nearly every other agricultural sector and taking a toll on important ecosystems and natural resources in both the US and Latin America. While the economic incentives of this industry are appealing, we must ask ourselves and the recent politics around the beef industry, at what cost can we keep meat consumption alive?  


  1. Yueng, Isabel. "Meathooked." Vice. HBO. 2016. Television.

  2. Trachtman, Tal. "U.S. Cattle Industry Has Beef with Decision to Allow Argentine Imports." CNN. Cable News Network, 8 July 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016. <>.

About Author(s)

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Sophia Winston
Sophia Winston is a Spanish and Urban Studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is also pursuing a certificate in Latin American Studies and a minor in Portuguese. She has spent a semester abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is currently a senior.