© Christian Braga / Greenpeace

Smoking out the fire risk in beef supply chains

Insight / 17 Aug 2021

With cattle ranching closely linked to burning season in the Amazon, we look at how beef traders could do more to prevent land being cleared by fire.

The fires in the Brazilian Amazon highlight the rising levels of deforestation in the area as farmers clear deforested land to make way for cattle pasture, and later, often soy.

The fires have become the unacceptable face of a growing crisis in the Amazon, with deforestation rates hitting record highs.

Read more about why the fires are happening.

In Europe, retailers and investors have previously raised the alarm about the fires, urging the Brazilian government to intervene and threatening to stop sourcing beef and leather from the Amazon unless action is taken.

But in Brazil, the biggest beef traders, who wield the greatest influence on the farmers on the ground, and who supply manufacturers and retailers in Europe, do not appear to have a problem with sourcing cattle products from land recently cleared by fire.

The five biggest beef traders

Five traders dominate the beef trade from the Amazon, according to the most recent data in Trase (2017): JBS, Marfrig, Minerva, Mataboi Alimentos (now Prima Foods, a subsidiary of JBJ Investimentos) and Irmãos Gonçalves.

Analysis of the links between slaughterhouses and the fires in 2019 found that JBS, Marfrig and Minerva were linked to 60% of the fires in the buying zones of the top 10 slaughterhouses. Research by Greenpeace also linked these companies to fires in the Brazilian Pantanal.

Yet analysis from Forest 500 found that none of the five biggest traders have made an explicit commitment to ensure land is not cleared by fire for the beef they produce, and none have committed to exclude products that they source which are linked to the use of fire.

Zero-deforestation commitmentCommitment to not clear land with fireCommitment to exclude products linked to fireForest 500 score /100 (2020)
JBSAmazon onlyXX47
MarfrigAmazon and CerradoXX38
Prima FoodsAll sourcing regionsXX27
Irmãos GonçalvesXXX0

Just one of the companies, Marfrig reports that it began monitoring the fires via satellite in 2019, and that staff received training in fire fighting.

Fires and palm oil companies

Fires are also used for land clearing in Indonesia, where the resulting smoke pollution has caused health alerts across the region. But following the devastating impacts of the 2015 burning season, the Indonesian government and companies have taken steps to reduce fires.

This is reflected in the commitments of some of the big palm oil traders, who have not only committed to zero deforestation, but also to reduce the number of fires in the land they control.

Malaysian palm oil company Genting, one of the companies operating in Indonesia and assessed as part of the Forest 500, has committed to “no use of fire for new development, replanting and plasma” schemes. The company says it also actively monitors hotspots and fires daily around its concessions using drones and satellites, and has established emergency response teams to tackle fires.

Fires have not been eradicated on palm oil plantations, with fires detected in protected peatland areas this year. In 2019, Genting subsidiary PT Globalindo Agung Lestari was allegedly linked to fires on its concessions in Kalimantan, Indonesia. But overall the number of fires has been reduced.

Quelling the flames

The beef traders assessed could clearly do more to discourage farmers from using fires to clear the land, but companies and governments in consumer countries can also act.

Proposed new laws to introduce mandatory due diligence on deforestation risks in the UK would require companies to ensure products are not linked to forests being cleared – although the current proposal in the UK Environment Bill only applies to illegal deforestation. Strengthening these measures to cover all deforestation – and ensuring they apply to all commodities, including beef, would help reduce the use of fire.

In the European Union, the proposals for regulatory steps to address deforestation have been delayed, but legislators have a clear opportunity to require companies to address the risks of all deforestation linked to commodity production, and there is strong support from European consumers for these measures.

Retailers and manufacturers, including the supermarkets that have raised concerns about increasing levels of deforestation in Brazil, can also take steps to engage with their suppliers and demand products that are deforestation and fire-free.

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