Beef: The Prime Cause of Deforestation in the Amazon

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The soy industry has long been the bugbear of critics of the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon. But a recent study jointly carried out by the soy industry and local NGOs, including Greenpeace, suggests that crops aren’t the worst offenders: Instead, the report levies the blame on cattle.

Beef production is big business in Brazil.

Between 2002 and 2003, Brazil overtook Australia and the United States to become the world’s largest exporter of beef. By now, its exports total well over 2.5 million tons annually, over 65 percent more than Australia, the next-largest exporter.

It would be one thing if that beef were produced on already-existing pasture. But it’s not.

Increasingly, cows are pastured in the Amazon. According to a 2009 Greenpeace study, 90 percent of the land deforested between 1996 and 2006 is now being used for cattle-ranching.

Over 60 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and land-use change, sectors that directly implicate beef-production. Even in 2000, this totaled close to 400 million carbon-ton equivalents per annum, second only to Indonesia, where land-use change and deforestation account for about 700 million carbon-tons annually.

Between 1996 and 2006, over 10 million hectares were cleared for cattle ranching. While the pace has abated in recent years, it’s still a severe problem. Even if the recent slower pace were to continue, 40 percent of the Amazon would be gone by 2050. Brazil’s plan to effect emissions reductions assumes that Amazonian deforestation will cease completely by 2015.

That’s where soy comes in. Soy’s small and diminishing contribution to Amazonian deforestation isn’t the result of lucky happenstance. It’s a result of a 2006 moratorium, which appears to have significantly reduced direct soy-related forest destruction.

The 2006 accord was made between soy producers and NGOs, and it prohibited the purchase of soy from newly-cleared areas. The agreement followed a 2006 study, Eating up the Amazon, which found that existing rates of deforestation were devastating.

It’s not all roses, however. The 2009 joint study probably undercounts the amount of land deforested for soy cultivation, since the parcels randomly selected for observation were all larger than 100 hectares. This was a reasonable methodological choice in 2002, when 55 percent of the deforested land was in swathes larger than 100 hectares, and only 25 percent of the afflicted land was in plots of 25 hectares or less.

But since 2008, patches larger than 100 ha have comprised 22 percent of the deforested land, while those smaller than 25 ha now represent 47 percent of the affected forest.

And there’s another, larger problem. The moratorium only affects the Amazon. The neighboring Cerrado region, a vast savanna ecological zone, is being converted to soy production, setting off a vicious ripple effect. As environmental writer Rhett Butler observes:

As soy and sugar cane — the source of Brazil’s ethanol — expand their acreage into the Cerrado, they compete with cattle ranching, the dominant form of agricultural land use in the region. Low-intensity ranching, which yields significantly less revenue per hectare than industrial agriculture, is then displaced to frontier areas, increasing deforestation. Ranchers who sell their land to soy and cane growers can buy 10 times as much land on the frontier.

This doesn’t mean the soy moratorium was a bad idea. But it does mean it needs to be broadened.

It’s also a good reminder: When agro-industry makes pacts, it doesn’t do so in order to hobble itself. So the moratorium offers a powerful lesson for whoever next occupies the Brazilian presidential seat.

The successor to President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brasilia plainly will have to confront the powerful beef and soy industries head-on, because there’s simply no other way of meeting the obligation to bring Amazonian deforestation to a full-stop by 2015.

We’ll see how it plays out.


See also:

Beef: What’s Not for Dinner in a Sustainable World

New Carbon Calculus: What’s Our Meatprint?

Protecting and Restoring the Earth’s Forests