International Policy Digest

Lance Cheung
World News /10 Jul 2016

Brazil, Beef Trade and the Deforestation of the Amazon

As population increases, our food demands are also rising and the international market’s demand for certain products is leading to some disastrous and unsustainable affects.

Despite existing policies to curb development, the demand for beef by numerous first world countries is actively encouraging Central and South American countries, Brazil being the largest participant, to cut down swathes of rainforest to create more cattle ranching.

While the situation is more complex, the basic equation is simple. A growing demand for beef will result in increased production. For countries such as Brazil, this means finding new land which comes at the cost of one of our most vital rainforests.

Brazil’s Beef Industry

Brazil is the largest exporter of beef which is causing 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon.

How much beef does Brazil export? Using figures from Greenpeace, the country’s export values rose from $1.9 million to $1.9 billion between 1996 and 2004. The country aims to double its market share by 2018.

Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina are also among some of the biggest global exporters of beef and all of these countries have large areas (although no country has as much of the Amazon as Brazil) of the rainforest to call home. As such, it’s also vital to remember that flexible nature of business.

If policies are too strict in one country, this demand will simply be met in another. For Brazil, this means finding a way to control its deforestation without actively killing the industry that is providing lucrative profits.

Current Policies and Control Methods

Despite this, Brazil has taken many active steps to control its use of space. Cattle ranchers are obligated to retain around 80% of their land in its natural state, yet illegal ranchers that do not follow the regulation.

To further discourage this, Brazil has taken active steps to punish illegal ranches and businesses. In 2013, it levied fines of roughly $300 million. While this should discourage and penalize many organizations, it’s only a small percentage of the wider $20 billion industry.

More recently, Brazil has started to work with the largest corporations. Major exporters, such as JBS, have agreed to only purchase cattle from ranches that aren’t undergoing deforestation and abide by Brazilian regulations.

As part of this process, JBS undergoes regular auditing. In 2014, only 4 of its 12,000 sales came from unsustainable farms.

Similar efforts are being made in other countries, with mixed success. Argentina, which has areas of the Amazon, Chaco and Yungas rainforests to protect, works with UNESCO to protect such sites, but this still results in deforestation.

Chile, likewise, also actively regulates deforestation, limiting the emissions of deforestation and protecting entire forest reserves where possible. Central American countries are regulating to prevent deforestation.

Ultimately, however, these methods do not prevent all deforestation. Brazil still seeks to double its output, which requires new land. It’s current laws and regulations limit, but do not stop, the rate at which this is done. Less deforestation only means it will take a little longer until the Amazon is destroyed.

Understanding Global Demand

While it’s easy to focus on the exporters like Brazil, the importing countries’ demands should be explored as well.

Beef consumption statistics, can be analyzed in terms of pure volumes or per capita. In terms of the former, many countries consume large volumes of beef. The top 3 are: United States (11,376,000 tonnes), Brazil (7,173,000 tonnes), and China (7,504,000 tonnes).

These reference levels of consumption, not importation. Brazil also likely consumed a lot of beef grown locally, for example.

It’s also worth noting that the European Union, as a whole, consumes 7,765,000 tonnes of beef. However, it’s not ethically fair to generalize countries into one amalgamated statistic in this regard.

The results look different when we analyze the amount of beef consumed per person. Uruguay (46.4 kg per capita), Argentina (40.4 kg) and Paraguay (25.6 kg). Of these leading three, all three are actively involved in beef production in the Amazon.

Key differences arise when we look at the volumes consumed, per person, in other countries. In the United States, the average figure 24.7 kg is per capita. In China, this is only 3.8 kg per capita. The US consumes over 6 times as much beef per person. With an increasing population, any increase in the US will, arguably, have 6 times the demand that a similar increase in a country such as China will have. As such, the American consumption volumes will increase more rapidly with each generational boom.

The global average is just 12.25 pounds of beef per individual. This great disparity reflects the demand of wealthier countries for more beef.

These results also show that some countries, despite importing large volumes, actively don’t eat that much beef. China, as an example, imports more than 6 million pounds which translates to 7 pounds per individual.

The Vitality of the Rainforest

It’s worth remembering just why the Amazon is so vital to the wider world. It is greatest tropical rainforest in the world and is critical to the production of oxygen and the absorption of carbon dioxide.

Yet the beef trade does more than just reduce this process. Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that approximately 300 million tonnes of carbon are released by the destruction process itself.

Finding a Solution

With so many countries actively involved in this lucrative industry – and with no clear decline in demand in the near future, a very specific solution is needed to help save the Amazon.

Despite efforts in countries like Brazil, there’s no guarantee that beef production is completely sustainable. Could policies be enacted to help improve alternative sources?

Could some of the largest importers, America, Russia and China, enable initiatives to produce more beef locally? If one considers that around 301,000 km of land has been cut down (an area the size of Italy) and that America, alone, has over 9.8 million kilometers of space, there is some potential. Roughly 44.2% of this land could be used for agriculture, over 4,300,000 kilometers.

Countries that consume the highest amount of beef – such as the US, which requires 24.7 kg of beer per capita – should look at influencing cultural values and offering alternative, sustainable food sources. Beef can certainly be enjoyed, but current policies allow for an over production of beef that has serious consequences in other areas of the world, such as the Amazon.

In contrast to America, India – where beef consumption is just 0.5 kg per person – is an example of the influence culture can have.

Similarly, greater global efforts could be taken to improve individual values and efforts. Many people realize the benefits of self-sustainability, such as growing organic gardens and other environmentally friendly activities, yet beef is often overlooked.

Just because it can’t be grown at home, does not mean accepting any source of beef. When it’s the leading cause of deforestation, efforts both must be taken to find more viable solutions.