The cattle sector must act to stop deforestation

Publication date

Landscape near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Photo by Kate Evans for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

‘The next assessment results will be announced at the end of 2016. Better scores in the cattle supply chain would be a significant cause for celebration’

It’s been a year since we published that quote on the Forest 500 blog. Nothing has happened and there is no cause for celebration.

The production of ‘forest risk’ commodities, such as beef, soy, and palm oil, drives two thirds of tropical deforestation. The latest Forest 500 assessment shows the cattle sector lagging behind other sectors when it comes to addressing their role in that deforestation.

Huge tracts of forest and savannah are lost each year due to cattle farming. In South America, beef was responsible for 71% of total deforestation between 1990 and 2006. And, after a period that saw a decline in the rate of deforestation in Brazil, that rate is on the rise again. This is an urgent problem with deep local and global implications, from climate change to biodiversity loss and land conflicts, particularly in developing nations.

Cattle ranching continues to expand, particularly in the Amazon, where it occupies about 65% of deforested land. Other biomes are also affected. Nearly 200 million acres of the Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah, and over 29 million acres of the lowland plain of the Chaco have been convertedfirst for beef and then for soy, a feed source for livestock.

The 2016 Forest 500 report highlighted that very few companies in the cattle sector have policies on deforestation, with just one in six adopting policies focused specifically on deforestation driven by cattle. Fewer still are taking action to implement these policies.

There is some global momentum to address this issue. The New York Declaration on Forests mandates the halving of deforestation in the supply chains of signatories by 2020. While members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) have committed to remove deforestation from their supply chains by the same date.

Over the last three years, there has been some improvement among companies with soy, timber, and palm oil supply chains. It is time the cattle sector followed their lead.

We should not understate the potential risk if the cattle sector continues to expand without addressing deforestation. Locally, water, energy, and food security depend on the forests that are being destroyed.

Globally there is simply no possibility of avoiding runaway climate change without keeping forests standing, and to do this, the hugely important cattle sector must act. We are already crossing major thresholds for the global climate.

Some steps have been made in the right direction by some companies — a small number have signed the Zero Deforestation Cattle Agreement. But this only covers about half of the documented slaughterhouses in the Brazilian Amazon.

Improvements in sustainability policies in the cattle sector in the next Forest 500 assessment, to be released at the end of 2017, would still be a major cause for celebration.

This piece was written by Andre Vasconcelos, supported by Alex Morrice.