Brazil's attempt to double its share of the global market for beef will carry a heavy environmental cost, report warns
By Michael McCarthy, Environment editor
The Independent, Saturday, 31 January 2009
Green activists say that country's determination to double its share of the world beef market is likely to undermine its new targets for halting Amazon rainforest destruction and reducing carbon emissions.
The South American country has the world's largest cattle herd and is already the biggest beef exporter on the planet. Now the Brazilian government is seeking to boost its share of the world beef market from 30 per cent to 60 per cent in the next decade.
Most of this growth will come in Amazonia, on pastureland created by cutting down rainforest, according to a report released today by Greenpeace. The cattle industry will be the main driver of deforestation, it argues.
And deforestation will mean, the environment group says, that Brazil will not be able to curb its massive carbon dioxide emissions – 75 per cent of them coming from deforestation. It is already the planet's fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China, the United States and Indonesia. This is despite the fact that in December last year the Brazilian government introduced targets for reducing deforestation by 72 per cent by 2017, as a part of a national climate-change action plan.
Although it has long been known that cattle ranching, which has been expanding continuously since the early 1970s, has been a principaldriver of rainforest destruction in Brazil, the Greenpeace study, entitled "Amazon Cattle Footprint", is thought to be the first detailed assessment of the scale of its impact (*).
The report uses innovative satellite-mapping techniques to expose direct links between new cattle farms and forest destruction in one of the largest Amazon states, Mato Grosso. One map, for example, reveals the location of industrial-sized slaughterhouses within the state, and shows how they have become the epicentres of major forest destruction as land is cleared to make way for pasture.
Between 1996 and 2006, the report says, the area of pastures in the Amazon grew by approximately 10 million hectares – an area the size of Portugal – to accommodate a vast expansion of the Brazilian cattle herd, which now numbers about 65 million animals.
Between 2002 and 2006, 14.5 million of the total of 20.5 million animals added to the herd were in the Amazon, which now holds about 40 per cent of the national herd, the report says.
It adds that according to Brazilian government data, in 2006 there were three head of cattle in the Amazon for every human inhabitant. Just under 80 per cent of the deforested Amazon is now used for cattle grazing.
"The Brazilian government needs to get a grip on the cattle industry before it completely undermines the country's chances of tackling climate change," said Sarah Shoraka, Greenpeace's forests campaigner. "Right now, huge swathes of rainforest are being cut down to feed the global appetite for beef and leather. As these new maps show, there's a clear link between the location of new cattle ranches and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
"Stopping this expansion offers the best chance of fighting climate change in Brazil, but we need the government to step in before it's too late."
The Amazon basin holds the largest tropical forest in the world, and is the most diverse ecosystem on Earth, playing a vital role in ensuring the region's water supplies, regulating rainfall, and keeping the world'sclimate in balance.
Continued cattle expansion will also have devastating impacts on the Amazon's unique ecosystem and could displace millions of indigenous people, the Greenpeace report says.
In 2006 another major driver of deforestation, soya bean cultivation, has been partly curbed: after pressure from environmentalists, soya growers agreed to a moratorium on growing on newly deforested land. It is likely that the Brazilian cattle industry will now come under similar pressure.
Luis Felipe Carvalho, the secondsecretary at the Brazilian embassy in London, said last night that Brazil did not believe that doubling cattle production would undermine its target to reduce deforestation. It was hoped to use intensive farming techniques to produce more cattle in future from a smaller area of land. "Doubling the cattle industry does not necessarily mean doubling the land the cattle industry uses. We hope to increase productivity, not just the size of the area farmed," he said.
* You can download the report at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/press/reports/amazon-cattle-footprint-mato