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Produce more to deforest less: is intensification in beef production the way to reduce deforestation in the Amazon?

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By John James Loomis

· 11 min read

Climate change and the beef industry

A growing global population, rising living standards in developing countries, increased urbanization, and westernization of diets across the globe are driving continued beef consumption. Beef is the third most consumed animal protein after chicken and pork, yet also represents a sector with significant environmental and social impacts. The beef industry significantly contributes to climate change through the release of methane emissions, deforestation, and other environmental impacts. Livestock, particularly cattle raised for beef, generate methane during digestion, a potent greenhouse gas with a higher warming potential than carbon dioxide over a shorter timeframe. The expansion of pastureland for cattle often involves deforestation, releasing stored carbon and contributing to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The industry is energy-intensive, requiring substantial amounts of energy for production, processing, and transportation, thereby adding to carbon emissions. Additionally, beef production is associated with high water consumption, water pollution, and changes in land use patterns that impact ecosystems and biodiversity. Sustainable practices, including rotational grazing, improved manure management, and integrated production systems with agriculture and silviculture can mitigate methane emissions and the need for continued land conversion. 

The global beef industry functions as a global value chain (GVC), commencing with cattle production on farms and ranches where animals are bred and raised. Following this, the processing stage takes place in slaughterhouses, where the meat undergoes processing into various cuts and products, adhering to stringent quality and safety standards. Subsequently, the distribution phase involves transporting processed beef products to diverse destinations, ranging from local markets to international hubs. The industry's global nature is underscored by significant cross-border trade, with major exporting countries, including Brazil, the United States, Australia, and Argentina, supplying meat to a diverse array of international markets. Retail and consumption represent the final stage, with consumers purchasing beef products from supermarkets, butchers, or restaurants, influenced by factors such as price, quality, and cultural preferences. Regulatory compliance, technological innovations, sustainability considerations, and changing consumer awareness collectively shape the dynamics of the beef industry value chain, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive understanding to address its complexities and foster sustainable practices.

History of the Brazilian beef industry in the Amazon

Brazil is the largest exporter of beef and the second-largest producer of beef in the world. It is also home to one of the few national herds that are expected to continue growing over the next decades, and in the case of Brazil, with its extensive pasture system (as opposed to confinement system) this means potentially more deforestation. 

The history of the Brazilian beef industry in the Amazon is a tale of transformation, marked by economic shifts, agricultural expansion, and environmental consequences. While cattle ranching has been part of Brazil's history for centuries, the large-scale emergence of the beef industry in the Amazon gained momentum during the latter half of the 20th century. The 1970s witnessed a surge in land use changes, with vast areas of the Amazon rainforest being cleared to accommodate the growing demand for pastureland. Ranchers were attracted to the Amazon due to its abundant resources and the potential for expansive grazing areas. The Brazilian government, in its pursuit of economic development, encouraged such expansion. Consequently, the region became a hotspot for cattle ranching, together with supportive government policies, Brazilian companies such as JBS became at first national champions and are now the largest meat processing companies in the world. 

Understanding the dynamics of the Brazilian beef GVC in the Amazon involves recognizing the diverse range of stakeholders both within the chain and around it that shape its trajectory. This chain begins with feed suppliers, veterinarians, genetic companies, fertilizer companies, heavy machinery manufacturers and a range of other companies that supply inputs to ranching operations. Next, cattle ranchers, often large-scale operators, are crucial players, that sell cattle to slaughterhouses. However, the majority of ranchers in Brazil are small-scale and often supply large-scale ranchers with calves and cattle that are then fattened before selling to slaughterhouses. These indirect suppliers are often involved in deforestation as the traceability of supply chains often stops at the direct suppliers. Slaughterhouses and meat processing companies are the major stakeholder within the chain and control the most power, thus it has been the major slaughterhouse companies in Brazil (JBS, Minerva, Marfrig) that have been the target of interventions aiming to eliminate deforestation from the supply chain (e.g., the 2009 Greenpeace report) known as zero-deforestation commitments (ZDCs). In the Amazon, the expansion of the beef industry has brought ranchers into conflict with indigenous communities, whose deep roots in the Amazon find themselves at the intersection of agricultural expansion and conservation. The industry's expansion frequently encroaches upon their traditional lands, leading to conflicts over territory and resources. Brazilian governmental bodies play a pivotal role in regulating and overseeing the industry. Their policies shape the direction of cattle ranching, impacting environmental conservation and social welfare. Non-governmental organizations and environmental groups play a crucial role in monitoring and advocating for sustainable practices. They bring attention to the environmental impact of cattle ranching and push for conservation efforts. On a global scale, consumers and corporations influence the industry through their demand for sustainably sourced products. International scrutiny has led some companies to adopt policies that avoid sourcing beef linked to deforestation in the Amazon.

Major challenges facing the Brazilian beef industry in the Amazon

The Brazilian beef industry in the Amazon confronts an array of challenges, each with far-reaching consequences for the environment, society, and global perceptions. Approximately 70% of deforestation in the Amazon can be attributed to the cattle industry, most of which is illegal. Deforestation occurs primarily due to the production system used - an extensive pasture system. As pastures become degraded due to lack of maintenance and poor management practices (e.g., overgrazing, lack of weed and pest control), new pasture area is made by clearing previously forested land. Degraded pasturelands are defined as native or planted pastures that have seen a decrease in carrying capacity, productivity, and biomass production. The creation of pastures is also done to demarcate territory where land tenure is unclear or poorly enforced. 

The expansion of cattle ranching often infringes upon the lands traditionally occupied by indigenous communities. This triggers conflicts over land use, leading to displacement, cultural erosion, and a loss of livelihoods for these communities. International pressure, driven by concerns over environmental sustainability, has prompted changes in market dynamics. Some international markets and corporations are increasingly cautious about sourcing beef linked to deforestation, impacting the industry's access to global markets. However, it should be noted that only about 25% of the beef produced in Brazil is exported, which shows the limits of influence that international markets have on the Brazilian beef industry. Despite existing regulations, enforcement remains a challenge. Illegal logging, land grabbing, and non-compliance with environmental standards persist, undermining the effectiveness of regulatory measures.

Command-and-control policies included increased monitoring and enforcement of illegal deforestation. From 2004 until 2016, Brazil saw significant reductions in deforestation primarily due to increasing funding for command-and-control style policies. This trend was reversed from 2016 until 2023 as a result of government policies and pronouncements concerning deforestation. In 2023, deforestation in the Amazon dropped for the first time in several years and the government has pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030. However, the government is still rebuilding the administrative capacity of the federal government, which saw major budget cuts and dismantling during the Bolsonaro administration.

Given the challenges of command-and-control style policies in regions such as the Amazon, economic policies have been lauded as cost-effective alternatives. ZDCs aim to rid supply chains of suppliers that deforest land in their production. The Brazilian beef industry was one of the earliest to make zero-deforestation commitments (ZDCs) beginning in 2009, following a report by the nongovernmental organization (NGO), Greenpeace. In the agreement, known as the G4 agreement or Public Livestock Commitment, the then four major companies in the Brazilian beef industry (JBS, Minerva, Marfrig, and Bertin - later purchased by JBS) agreed to end direct suppliers associated with deforestation and to end ties with indirect suppliers within 2 years. Also in 2009, the Term of Adjustment of Conduct (in Portuguese - Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta - TAC) was initiated by the Federal Public Ministry in Pará and since 2014 has spread to the rest of the Amazon region. The TAC commits companies to rid their supply chains of illegal deforestation. The G4 firms have also signed the TAC. The implementation of the TAC has been slower than the G4 Agreement, with 79% of TAC-committed slaughterhouses not being in compliance, this dropped to 50% in 2021. ZDCs are limited by the influence of buyers on their suppliers, if suppliers (i.e., cattle ranchers) can sell to non-ZDC buyers, then the effectiveness of ZDCs is diminished. 

Intensification and integration production systems as solutions

Addressing sustainability challenges in the beef GVC requires reducing methane emissions and continued deforestation. Intensification of production as well as integrated production systems with agriculture and silviculture for example have been studied to assess their benefits to reducing GHG emissions and storing carbon. Yet these solutions do not come without their own set of challenges.

Intensification in beef production denotes the strategic application of advanced technologies and management practices to optimize efficiency and productivity in the industry. This multifaceted approach involves higher stocking densities, selective breeding for improved genetics, and the use of feedlot systems during the finishing stage to accelerate growth rates and reduce the time it takes for cattle to reach market weight. Additionally, modern technologies, including precision farming and automated systems, contribute to enhanced monitoring and management. The focus extends to health and nutrition management, utilizing precise strategies to ensure the well-being of cattle and maximize growth potential. Reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination, further contribute to breeding efficiency. While intensification aims to improve economic efficiency, concerns related to environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and ethical considerations necessitate a balanced approach, ensuring that responsible and sustainable practices are integral to the intensification strategies within the beef industry.

The relationship between intensification in beef production and deforestation is intricate and contingent on the specific implementation of intensification practices. While the efficient use of land, improved feed efficiency, and technological innovations associated with intensification can theoretically reduce the pressure for deforestation, challenges and concerns persist. The sourcing of concentrated feeds, such as soy or corn, for intensified systems, may indirectly contribute to deforestation if obtained from regions with high deforestation rates. Additionally, the potential shift from traditional extensive grazing systems to intensive operations may result in land use changes and deforestation The success of intensification in curbing deforestation relies on factors such as sustainable practices, governance, and responsible feed sourcing, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive approach that balances increased productivity with environmental conservation.

The integration of beef pasture production systems with agriculture or silviculture involves a strategic and sustainable approach to combine livestock grazing with crop cultivation or tree planting. This multifaceted strategy includes agroforestry, where trees are intentionally integrated into pasture areas to provide shade, improve soil health, and offer additional products like timber. Silvopasture systems specifically designed for livestock production strategically plant trees within pastureland to provide benefits such as shade, enhanced forage quality, and carbon sequestration. Rotational grazing, which involves moving cattle through different pasture areas over time, can be coupled with the integration of crops during resting periods to maintain soil fertility and diversify production. Cover cropping within pastures and the integration of livestock with diverse crops contribute to improved soil health, increased productivity, and diversified revenue streams. Overall, this integrated approach aligns with principles of sustainable agriculture, fostering resilience, and promoting a holistic perspective on land management that considers both livestock and plant production systems.

Integrated production systems, including agroforestry, Silvopasture, and diversified agricultural practices, offer a range of climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits. These systems contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the enhancement of carbon sequestration, and increased resilience to climate variability. Trees within agroforestry and Silvopasture systems serve as effective carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, thereby mitigating climate change impacts. Diversified production practices, such as rotational grazing, minimize greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional agriculture and livestock activities. Furthermore, agroforestry and cover cropping not only improve soil health and structure but also increase the capacity for carbon sequestration while reducing the risk of soil degradation. Integrated systems support higher biodiversity, playing a crucial role in ecosystem resilience and contributing to carbon cycling. Additionally, these systems contribute to improved water management, reduce vulnerability to water-related climate impacts, and enhance overall system resilience to climate variability. The inherent diversity in these integrated systems provides shade, wind protection, and economic diversification, making them more resilient to extreme weather events and market fluctuations, ultimately promoting sustainable and climate-resilient agricultural practices.

Implementing intensification and integrated production systems in the Brazilian beef global value chain within the Amazon encounters multifaceted challenges. Land tenure disputes and conflicts over land use, particularly with indigenous communities and traditional landholders, persist. Deforestation pressures remain a significant concern despite efforts to promote sustainability, necessitating measures to ensure that intensification practices do not contribute to further environmental degradation. Weak regulatory enforcement and governance, coupled with insufficient penalties for non-compliance, hinder the effectiveness of policies addressing the environmental impacts of beef production. Technical and financial constraints pose barriers, particularly for smallholders, as the adoption of intensification and integrated systems demands expertise and financial investment. The influence of global market dynamics, meeting international sustainability standards, and the complexities of the beef supply chain add additional layers of complexity. Climate change impacts, social and cultural factors, and challenges related to market access and certification further complicate the implementation landscape. Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach, encompassing government agencies, industry players, environmental organizations, and local communities to foster sustainable practices in the Brazilian beef GVC in the Amazon.

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About the author

John James Loomis is a postdoctoral researcher at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, Brazil. His research focuses on carbon markets, ESG development in Brazil, global value chains in the Amazon, the circular economy, and forest ecosystem services.

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