Cattle Ranching

Beef Production

Cattle ranching, the practice of raising grazing cows for meat, dairy, leather, and other cow-based products, is the biggest driver of tropical deforestation in the world.1 Originally introduced to South America by Jesuits in the 16th century, cattle ranching exploded in the Amazon in the 1960s when the Brazilian government launched an aggressive campaign to expand the sector. Today, Brazil is among the top meat exporters in the world, supplying a quarter of the world’s demand and raking in $10 billion annually.2

While a source of economic growth, the booming cattle industry extracted a heavy toll on the rainforest. Today, it is responsible for about 80% of deforestation across all Amazon countries.3 When ranchers clear forest for pastures, they typically use a slash-and-burn technique, where they cut foliage, let it dry out, then burn it to clear space. Because the fires can spread to other areas, this practice leads to wildfires, resulting in more tree loss, disruption of the hydrological cycle, and the greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019 alone, over 74,000 wildfires burned in the Amazon, many of which were connected to ranching and the government’s renewed efforts to expand cattle production.4


Global Demand and a Murky Supply Chain

A marker of economic development, meat consumption is expected to increase globally in the coming decades.5 While most Brazilian beef is consumed domestically, much of it is shipped overseas, including to the United States, which consumes about 20% of the world’s beef.6 In addition to beef, global demand for leather also fuels cattle ranching. Defenders of the leather industry retort that the hides would otherwise be thrown away, but leather adds value to cattle, which further incentivizes ranching.

Sourcing standards for companies using cattle-based products are generally more robust than in the gold supply chain, where traceability requirements are practically nonexistent. In 2009, Greenpeace launched its “Slaughtering the Amazon” campaign, exposing global brands like Nike, Walmart, Prada, and others for marketing leather produced on deforested land.7 In response, large meat-sourcing companies and the Brazilian government reached two agreements that committed signatories to eliminating deforestation completely from their supply chains.

While a big step forward, it wasn’t long before cattle traders found loopholes in the system. By covertly shuffling cattle from illegally deforested pastures into “clean” ranches, traders could mask the origin of cattle. Thanks to this trick, known in the industry as “cattle laundering,” many of the world’s biggest companies, including meatpackers, clothing designers, and automakers, continue to fuel deforestation in the Amazon.8


Solutions and How You Can Help

With most Amazon countries pledging to end deforestation by 2030, finding solutions to unsustainable cattle ranching is urgent. One proposal to reform the supply chain in Brazil is to track cattle individually, as is done in places like Argentina and Europe. Some experts say the government should use its shipment log system called a “Guide of Animal Transport,” which is currently used to track the spread of infectious diseases, as a traceability tool.9

Technical experts have also developed on-the-ground solutions to prevent deforestation and carbon emissions in the sector. Among them, cattle intensification, an effort to make cattle ranches more productive with less land10; silvopasture, a grazing style that keeps pastures forested11; and reforestation of abandoned cattle ranches and croplands, which make up about 23% of destroyed forest in the Amazon.12

There are also ways you can help as an ordinary citizen, such as eating less meat, or writing to your representative to demand a deforestation-free supply chain. For more ideas on how you can help, visit Amazon Aid’s Activate page.

Works Cited

  1. WWF. (2018). What are the Biggest Drivers of Tropical Deforestation? They may not be what you think. World Wildlife Magazine, Summer 2018. https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/summer-2018/articles/what-are-the-biggest-drivers-of-tropical-deforestation
  2. Plotkin, Mark. (2020). The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press. 10.1093/wentk/9780190668297.001.0001
  3. Global Forest Atlas. (2016). Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region.
  4. Colin Dwyer. (2019, August 21). Tens Of Thousands Of Fires Ravage Brazilian Amazon, Where Deforestation Has Spiked. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/21/753140642/tens-of-thousands-of-fires-ravage-brazilian-amazon-where-deforestation-has-spike
  5. OECD/FAO (2021), OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/19428846-en.
  6. Terrence McCoy & Júlia Ledor. (2022, April 29). Devouring the Rainforest. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/amazon-beef-deforestation-brazil/
  7. Greenpeace (2009). Slaughtering the Amazon. Technical report.
  8. Terrence McCoy & Júlia Ledor. (2022, April 29). Devouring the Rainforest. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/amazon-beef-deforestation-brazil/
  9. Ibid
  10. zu Ermgassen, Erasmus & Alcântara, Melquesedek & Balmford, Andrew & Barioni, Luis & Neto, Francisco & Bettarello, Murilo & Brito, Genivaldo & Cardoso Carrero, Gabriel & Florence, Eduardo & Garcia, Edenise & Gonçalves, Eduardo & Luz, Casio & Mallman, Giovanni & Strassburg, Bernardo & Valentim, Judson & Latawiec, Agnieszka. (2018). Results from On-The-Ground Efforts to Promote Sustainable Cattle Ranching in the Brazilian Amazon. Sustainability. 10. 1301. 10.3390/su10041301.
  11. Fuentes Navarro, Eduardo & Gomez, Carlos & Pizarro, Dante & Alegre, Julio & Castillo, Miguel & Vela, Jorge & Huaman, Ethel & Vásquez, Héctor. (2022). A review of silvopastoral systems in the Peruvian Amazon region. Tropical Grasslands-Forrajes Tropicales. 10. 78-88. 10.17138/tgft(10)78-88.
  12. Lovejoy, T. E., & Nobre, C. (2019). Amazon tipping point: Last chance for action. Science Advances, 5(12), eaba2949. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba2949