Once seen as one of the biggest threats to the Amazon rainforest, large meatpacking companies can become important players in slowing the rate of deforestation.
Preserving tropical forests, which store enormous amounts of carbon, is widely seen as vital to combating global warming and maintaining the planet's biodiversity.
One way to accomplish that is to get companies to pledge to buy their raw materials or agricultural products from sources that don't contribute to deforestation. But relatively few follow-up studies have been made to see how effective those pledges are, researchers say.
Now, a team of US and Brazilian researchers has found that zero-deforestation agreements can quickly reduce the pace of deforestation – in this case, on ranches in the Brazilian Amazon that supply cattle to the world's largest meat-processing company, JBS S.A.
The team focused its study on JBS's operations in the southeastern state of Pará. With 19.2 million head of cattle, the state is the largest cattle producer among the nine states in the Brazilian Amazon. And the region hosts 70 percent of the state's large, federally inspected slaughterhouses.
One of the most striking results was the sheer pace of change once the agreements were implemented, says Holly Gibbs, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment in Madison, Wis., and the lead author of a paper in the journal Conservation Letters describing the results.
"The speed was shocking – to see how quickly these slaughterhouses were able to get ranchers to make changes in their behavior," she says.
As a sink for greenhouse gases, the Amazon rainforest takes up about 300 million more tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere than it releases, according to an analysis published in the journal Nature Communications last spring. That net uptake is roughly 5 percent of annual US carbon dioxide emissions. Beyond the large amount of carbon dioxide the forest vegetation locks up, the rainforest is home to as much as 30 percent of all the species on the planet. By some estimates, a 2.5-acre patch of forest can contain up to 600 tree species.
Brazil is losing more raw acreage of tropical rainforest each year than any other country hosting similar ecosystems. By some estimates, the Amazon has lost 17 percent of forest cover in the past 50 years. The country has made marked strides in slowing the loss of its rainforests over the past decade – between 2004 and 2014, the country slashed deforestation rates by some 80 percent.
And where forests initially fell to subsistence farming or government resettlement programs, now the chainsaws serve logging and large, export-oriented agricultural interests, researchers note. Among the land cleared for agriculture, some 60 percent is pasture for grazing.
To get a better handle on the problem, in 2006 the Brazilian government required all rural landowners to register their holdings with the country's Environmental Rural Registry, known by its Portuguese acronym CAR. This provided a way to track changes in land-use and to monitor deforestation trends. In exchange for registration, landowners would get tax breaks and easier access to loans – and would avoid penalties for failing to register their land.
Three years later, federal lawsuits and public pressure prompted slaughterhouses and retailers in Pará to agree to use their purchasing power to support forest-conservation efforts. One by one, meat packers began to sign binding agreements to stop buying livestock from ranches where illegal logging was taking place.
That same year, the environmental group Greenpeace inked zero-deforestation agreements with four of the country's largest meat packers, including JBS, which later bought out one of the other three companies.
To gauge the impact of these efforts, Dr. Gibbs and colleagues used landowner registration with CAR as one benchmark for how JBS was doing in meeting its obligations under the no-deforestation agreements.
In 2006, only 2 percent of the company's immediate suppliers in southeastern Pará had registered with CAR. By 2009, 60 percent had registered. By 2013, that figure rose to 96 percent. In a survey of the company's 56 suppliers in the region, 85 percent said that they had registered their land in order to do business with JBS. That stood in contrast to the 69 ranches that didn't supply livestock to JBS. Of these, only 35 percent registered their land with CAR after the no-deforestation agreements were signed.
Using another measure, the team found that in 2009, about 36 percent of the ranches supplying JBS slaughterhouses in the region showed signs of recent deforestation. By 2013, only 4 percent showed those signs.
As for the effects on trees, Gibbs's team looked at land data for two groups of ranchers: those who supplied cattle to JBS before it signed the agreements and ranchers who were supplying JBS after it signed the pacts.
Between 2010 and 2012, ranches supplying JBS after it signed the pacts posted deforestation rates 50 percent lower than the rates on ranches that supplied the company before it signed.
"The hypothesis would be that JBS blocked those suppliers because they continued to deforest, so JBS said: I won't buy from you anymore," Gibbs says.
Meanwhile, JBS isn't hurting for business, she adds. In the Amazon region as a whole, JBS has boosted the number of its slaughterhouses from nine in 2008 to 32 in 2015. In the plants Gibbs's team has monitored, "the number of transactions ... has also increased over time."
Since 2009, the federal government has expanded the reach of its no-deforestation agreements for livestock to include four other states in the Amazon region.
Gibbs and colleagues acknowledge that several key issues remain to be analyzed.
The ranches from which JBS gets its cattle are the cattle's last stop before the slaughterhouse. These ranches are where cattle undergo their final fattening. The deforestation-related picture gets murky below that level, since at this stage of the agreements' implementation, it's hard to tell where the cattle originated. Ranches with high rates of deforestation could be "laundering" their cattle through these final, fattening ranches.
Indeed, in surveys the team conducted, ranchers acknowledged that laundering cattle is common.
Another unknown involves the number of cattle processed through slaughterhouses that don't track the cattle's sources.
The team recommends several additional steps that the government could take to tighten the program – including publicly accessible calf-to-slaughterhouse tracking data, faster sign-up of properties with the CAR, and mandatory audits of slaughterhouses to ensure compliance, for example.
The next steps involve trying to quantify how much deforestation has been avoided by Brazil's no-deforestation agreements for cattle. The team also is expanding its analysis to cover the whole Amazon basin to see if and how the results may vary under different circumstances.
Although large agribusiness companies have come under intense criticism for exploiting tropical forests and contributing to deforestation, Gibbs acknowledges. But the results suggest that under the right circumstances, "these big agribusiness companies can lead to major change on the ground," changes that weaken, if not sever the link between agricultural production and deforestation.