Beef producers, the next cutting edge for rain forest conservation?

Ranchers herd cattle in a deforested patch of the Amazon rain forest outside of Belem, Brazil.

It seems very counterintuitive. We've all been told the adverse effects of beef production on the environment. ("A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home," noted New Scientist in a post titled "Beef is murder on the environment", which reported on a study about beef and global warming.)

And figures show how much rain forest is being lost annually. A 2008 survey, reported in E Magazine, noted that deforestation had claimed one-fifth of the 1.6 million square miles that make up Brazil's Amazon basin.

What that means to the world, the BBC reported today: "In Brazil deforestation is responsible for more than half of carbon emissions, while across the world it is blamed for up to 20 percent of the gases that are said to be heating the planet."

Yet, David Cleary -- director of conservation strategies in South America for The Nature Conservancy -- calls a leading Brazilian beef company "the cutting edge of tropical conservation." At first glance, that seems pretty surprising from a conservationist who isn't naive and has lived in Brazil for 15 years.

In a Cool Green Science blog post titled "What should we do about beef from the Amazon?" he notes the problem: "Overwhelmingly the most important driver of deforestation in the Amazon is ranching, with pasture having replaced more than 80 percent of the Brazilian Amazon cleared since reliable satellite records began, in the early 1980s."

And he outlines his -- futile -- attempts to convince the Brazilian beef industry to change its ways: "I talked about the importance of not being linked to deforestation in a warming world, of monitoring supply chains and making sure your suppliers were doing the right thing. They listened politely, but I never got anywhere."

Then something happened to change all that. Earlier this summer, Greenpeace in Europe and Friends of the Earth in Brazil released reports outlining how  the beef industry is affecting deforestation. The publicity caused large supermarket chains to declare that they wouldn't buy beef linked to deforestation.

That sounds good, but few if any companies had a way of documenting whether meat is rain forest-friendly or not. So the easiest thing for most chains to do is simply not buy beef from the Amazon. And if they don't buy? The beef would probably be exported to Iran, Russia, or Venezuela, which aren't so picky about where the meat comes from.

In that case, notes Cleary, "The supermarkets and consumers who shop in them would get that warm, self-satisfied feeling of having done something to stop deforestation, when in reality you could argue they’re actually accelerating it."

And the "cutting edge of tropical conservation?" That's a conservationist working with a beef company to get a monitoring system set up so deforestation-free meat can be documented.

But do we really need beef production in the Amazon? I asked Cleary. Wouldn't environmentalists be better off trying to discourage this use altogether rather than trying to improve the situation, given the general environmental drawbacks of beef production?

His e-mailed reply:

The answer to your question is that you're going to get beef production in the Amazon whether or not environmentalists discourage it, or whether or not you or I think we need it. Most Amazon beef production goes to domestic and export markets that right now are rather impervious to discouragement by environmentalists and likely to remain so.
Given that inconvenient truth, a more promising strategy than redlining is to use supply chains and credit flows to encourage the intensification of beef production systems in the Amazon and their channelling into already cleared land, minimizing or perhaps even eliminating associated deforestation. That requires a combination of carrot and stick.
The exclusive use of the stick, as I tried to show, just ensures it's a different market driving the deforestation. The only way to get deforestation down is to accept ranching will continue to be a major Amazon industry, and run it in a way that has minimal to no forest clearance as a guiding principle.
Thanks to Greenpeace and FoE's good work, that is now an achievable goal, but we're only just starting. I think what's happened in the soy industry in the Brazilian Amazon is a model – but beef is the industry that will determine what happens to deforestation levels, not soy or biofuels.
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