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Why raising cattle isn’t the whole story of deforestation

Rising numbers of fires in the Amazon are often linked with deforestation for agricultural grazing, but the reality is more complex, explains Dr Rafael De Oliveira Silva.

Burning fallow vegetation is an essential management tool for Amazon farmers. It is usually an efficient way to prepare land for planting crops and pastures. However, in 2019, there was a concerning and atypical increase in regular fires in Amazon.

The Brazilian Spatial Research Institute (INPE) reported an 84 per cent increase in fire warnings between January and August, compared with the same period in 2018.

This sparked global outrage and fuelled a media narrative combining politics with an already emotive story linking deforestation to cattle ranching, and ultimately, global meat consumption.

Linking ruminant production and consumption to land clearance, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss is a plausible sell for international campaigners and global media eager for a simple narrative on culpability. 

Deforestation links

Livestock grazing is often associated with deforestation.
Livestock grazing is often associated with deforestation.

Adding more fuel to the discussion, a recent paper, The rotten apples of Brazil's agribusiness, published in Science, claims that 20 per cent of soybeans and 17 per cent of beef exported from Brazil to Europe are “contaminated with deforestation”.

But in an apparent contradiction, the study also finds that most of Brazil's agricultural output is deforestation-free and that 2 per cent of the farmers are responsible for 62 per cent of all illegal deforestation.

This generated misinterpretation of the results in media outlets and among the public. This is because the Science paper is the first to apply the idea of “contamination” for commodity deforestation, a problematic methodological choice.

The misinterpretation occurs because “contamination” is treated as a binary variable, that is the study does not differentiate between low or high contamination levels.

So, for example, a 100 hectare farm in which 100 per cent of the soybeans or beef were produced on recently deforested area is flagged as 100 “contaminated” hectares.  In the same way, another 100 hectare farm that produced only 1 per cent of the soybeans or beef on deforested land also has its 100 hectares flagged as contaminated.

This numerical distortion is the main reason why such a large proportion of Brazilian export-oriented commodities are contaminated with deforestation. In fact, around 98 per cent of the production is deforestation free, as highlighted by the same study.

Raising cattle

Reinforcing this narrative on the weakening link between deforestation and agriculture, another recent paper, Fire deforestation and livestock: when the smoke clears, which scrutinises the reasons for the fires and the subsequent increases in deforestation in the Amazon, suggests that the perceived link between deforestation and extensive land use for beef production is not as clear as commonly supposed.

The study suggest that, contrary to popular belief, the increased share of export-oriented beef might have contributed to weakening the beef cattle-deforestation link in Brazil. In that sense, well-intentioned beef boycotts potentially weaken the importance of public and private polices incentivising sustainable farming.

For example, between 2015-2017 an average of 1.5 million tonnes of beef per year was exported to around 90 countries, while pasture area contracted by around 1 million hectare over the same period.

In fact, data shows that gains in productivity via improvement of existing pastures, better animal performance measures, feed supplementation on-pasture and in feedlots, and improved animal genetics rather than pasture expansion explains recent production growth.

Related links

The rotten apples of Brazil’s agribusiness

Fire, deforestation, and livestock: when the smoke clears