Amazon ranchers use one hectare per cow to feed growing global appetite for meat

Though the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has dropped, about 6,000 square kilometers is still being felled every year, mainly so that cattle ranchers can help to feed a seemingly insatiable appetite for beef, both within Brazil and globally.
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Photo: flickr/AC Moraes

MATO GROSSO, Brazil _ Though the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has dropped, about 6,000 square kilometers is still being felled every year, mainly so that cattle ranchers can help to feed a seemingly insatiable appetite for beef, both within Brazil and globally.

Despite a push to increase the intensification of agriculture in Brazil, the huge amount of land used to raise cattle is still inefficient, said Peter May, co-author of The context of REDD+ in Brazil: drivers, agents, and institutions, published by the Center for International Forestry Research.

REDD+ is a global mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, as well as the conservation and sustainable management of forests, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

Brazil is the world’s largest producer of beef (only India has a higher number of cattle, but most of those are destined to supply milk rather than meat) and cattle ranches account for at least 70% of the cleared forest in the Brazilian Amazon. According to research done by the Swedish Institute of Food and Biotechnology, deforestation due to cattle ranching produces more than 700 kg of CO2 per kilogram of carcass weight. Since only 72% of the carcass is edible, that amounts to nearly a ton of carbon per kilogram of meat.

“The tendency in the past has been extensive agriculture – an agricultural model for the Amazon with one cow per one hectare,” he said. “And it has been going on for 20, 30 years at a very fast clip: every time you want to have another head of cattle, you are going to take down another 120 tons of carbon. That is a pretty significant cost to global society for the beef we eat.”

The current annual deforestation rate in Brazil’s section of the Amazon is 6,000 square kilometers (600,000 hectares) for 2009-2010, down from a high of nearly 28,000 square kilometers (2.8 million hectares) in 2004. The drop has resulted from both better government forest protection and global economic stagnation.

“There is a mix of opinion about that. The government has been crowing success saying that its ‘command and control’ strategy is paying off,” May said. ” There are others in the NGO community that analyze the rate of deforestation and the price of commodities as closely linked and that commodity prices went down during the financial crisis and when they go back up again then it will be business as usual. That really hasn’t happened. Brazil has not had a serious economic depression of any kind … so maybe there is something to be said for the command and control strategy.”

In recent months, however, there has been a sharp reversal, with spiking deforestation rates. Together with political pressures to increase the share landowners are allowed to legally deforest, this raises questions to what extent the sharp past reduction in Brazilian forest clearing will be sustainable in the future.

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