Why It’s So Hard to Stop Amazon Deforestation, Starting With the Beef Industry

Brazil’s Amazon region has suffered more deforestation this year than any in the past decade. The lax environmental policies of President Jair Bolsonaro bear some of the blame; so, too, does climate change. But much can be laid at the feet of cattle farmers.

Most cows in Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, are grass-fed. Ranchers in the precious biome use bulldozers, machetes, and fire to make room for pastureland—a practice that’s illegal but so widespread that it’s almost impossible for strapped regulatory teams to root out. A study published in Science in July showed at least 17% of beef shipments to the European Union from the Amazon region and Cerrado, Brazil’s savanna, may be linked to illegal forest destruction.

The sheer size of the country’s beef industry—2.5 million ranchers, 2,500 slaughterhouses, and about 215 million heads of cattle spread across 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers)—is one reason the big meatpackers say they’ve struggled to keep tabs on their suppliers. Another hurdle: Brazil’s government, which requires ranchers to file documents detailing the movements of their cattle, keeps that paperwork largely to itself.

JBS SA, the global beef industry leader, vowed in September to start monitoring its indirect suppliers—i.e., the farmers who raise the cattle to sell to the folks who sell it to JBS. That followed a similar announcement months earlier from rival Marfrig Global Foods SA. Both set the same five-year deadline to bring transparency to their supply chains. But they’ve made such promises before to little effect. This time around they’re pitching a blockchain-based system that some worry will be as easy to manipulate as the current system.

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