Cattle ranching is destroying the rainforest – what the EU can do about it17 November 2021
When more than 100 countries signed the zero-deforestation pledge at the COP26 in Glasgow, it was hailed as an historic agreement by state leaders and observers alike. But with the ink barely dried, reality is kicking back in with the news that deforestation in the Amazon rainforest reached new record heights in October. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), that month saw 877 km2 of the Amazon slashed, up 5% compared to October 2020.
These harrowing statistics are yet another rude reminder of the need for urgent measures. Brazil is home to 60% of the Amazon rainforest, an invaluable ecosystem often dubbed the Earth’s “green lungs” but which is now approaching a tipping point due to human destruction: long regarded as one of the world’s foremost carbon sinks, continual degradation has caused the rainforest to now emit more carbon than it’s able to absorb – a shocking reversal that needs to be urgently addressed.
Most of the Amazon’s carbon emissions come from illegal fires lit by farmers to clear forests to make way for pastures for cattle and land for agriculture. In fact, cattle ranching has been by far the number one reason for deforestation in every Amazon country for decades, accounting for the release of 340 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually. Worse, with global appetite for beef only increasing – Brazil being the top exporter of the product – a stop to rainforest destruction is not in sight. That is, unless the main importers of beef are stepping up to force a change in the way cattle farming is done in Brazil and elsewhere.
Mirror clauses to the rescue
Of all the major importers – China, the EU, Egypt, Chile and the US being the top five as of 2019 – only the EU has made efforts to reduce the environmental impact of its imports. Through its Farm to Fork and Green Deal policies, the EU is preparing to make food systems and supply chains greener by reducing carbon footprints and increasing environmental protection mechanisms. Brussels is right to take responsibility: almost a fifth of Brazilian beef imports could be linked to forest destruction, as a 2020 study estimated.
This self-awareness culminated in a draft law banning the import of six foods, including beef, from areas at risk of deforestation due to ranching and agriculture. Published on 17 November, Brussels’s unprecedented move, in the words of EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, “showcases our global responsibility and that the EU is walking the talk.”
While certain elements of the EU certainly mean business, progress remains slow on the whole. Most discussions on such matters are driven by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made green advances on European trade policy a priority for 2022, when France takes over the presidency of the Council of the EU. Because Farm to Fork and Green Deal entail much stricter environmental and animal welfare regulations for European farmers, which will put them at a disadvantage against global competitors with laxer regulations, including Brazilian beef producers, Macron has been pushing “mirror clauses” in EU policies as a way forward – the idea that European standards must be reflected in trading partners.
Implementing mirror clauses in the EU’s trade policies would not only prevent European producers from being undercut by cheaper rival imports, but pierce right at the heart of the Brazilian beef industry – and its illegal forest clearing activities. That’s because if Brazil wants to keep exporting its beef (and other goods) to the EU, the government will have to clean up its cattle industry and hold those who breach the laws to account. As Andreia Bonzo Araujo Azevedo, co-leader of public policy at the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture says, “Brazil has one of the most robust sets of environmental legislation in the world” […] What we’re lacking is enforcement. Our biggest challenge today is ensuring compliance with the law.”
Putting pressure on Brazil
By no means is that an easy task. Under Jair Bolsonaro, environmental regulations have been dismantled, environmental agencies relentlessly gutted and top officials fired, with the result that illegal loggers and cattle ranchers have felt encouraged to slash their way deeper into the rainforest. At the same time, the practice of “cattle laundering” is reaching new heights. Although Brazil’s largest beef companies, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, all committed to uphold several zero-deforestation pledges and agreements, including not to purchase cattle from ranches associated with deforestation, investigators were able to “link more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of illegal deforestation in the Amazon state of Pará” alone.
Negligence on the meat companies’ part clearly plays a role, as they have repeatedly failed to monitor their suppliers earnestly. They may also – inadvertently or not – lack the oversight to ensure their cattle comes from law-abiding farms, given that Brazilian Amazon ranchers tend to move their cows from one farm to another multiple times before they’re slaughtered, thereby hiding the true origin of the cows acquired by the slaughterhouse. The beef may then be exported to Europe because of its “clean” supply chain, hiding the real environmental cost to European consumers.
Such deceptive practices make the reasoning behind France’s push for mirror clauses all the more evident. Bolsonaro may well huff at the idea, but if continued trade with the EU is a national interest to be guarded, Brazil has no real alternative but to begin the enforcement of the law and increase oversight. EU food retailers are already threatening to boycott Brazilian beef imports over environmental concerns, and non-compliance with mirror clauses would provide an efficient legal mechanism to halt imports of beef from animals born and raised on farms responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon.
Room for the right solutions
Upping the pressure on Brazil could thus incentivize greater law enforcement and force a change in Brasilia. That’s especially the case since solutions to the cattle laundering problem already exist that only need to be implemented on a large scale. For example, scientists in Pará state have developed a track and trace system that allows buyers to verify whether the cattle they are purchasing comes from ranches involved in illegal deforestation or other environmental crimes. For the first time, the platform combines hitherto unlinked databases, thereby greatly facilitating investigations for authorities.
Furthermore, European pressure might also lead to a rethinking on pasture usage. Scientists argue that the deforested areas are already enough to more than double food production in the country without any further need for forest clearing. Increasing the number of cows per hectare is another important step, seeing how only one cow occupies every hectare even though the available space would allow for magnitudes more. Only then can Brazil obtain the same level of high productivity seen in efficient European beef producers.
The French presidency next year could therefore make all the difference, especially if the draft anti-deforestation law gets approved by member states and the EU Parliament quickly. The law is a big step in the right direction towards protecting the rainforest, even if more needs to be done going forward. Paris now has a unique chance to definitely put an end to the EU’s sponsoring of rainforest destruction in the Amazon.
Image credit: CIFOR/Flickr
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