21 November 2023
Brazilian beef exports and deforestation
The rate of deforestation and land conversion driven by the expansion of pasture for beef production in Brazil increased by 60% between 2016 and 2020, while the Amazon and Cerrado continue to be cleared despite zero-deforestation commitments made by beef producers.
By Tiago Reis, Erasmus zu Ermgassen and Osvaldo Pereira
Brazil is the world’s second largest beef producer and the largest exporter. In 2021, it produced 9.7 million tonnes of beef from the slaughter of 39 million cattle. Of this, 2.4 million tonnes of beef (25.5%) was exported, generating annual revenue of about US$8 billion .
Total deforestation and conversion of native vegetation across Brazil increased from 1.6 million hectares (Mha) in 2018 to 1.84 Mha in 2019 and 1.83 Mha in 2020. The expansion of pasture for cattle farming and land speculation is the largest direct driver of deforestation and conversion .
Cattle ranching drives deforestation, despite a decrease in beef production
Trase data shows that the amount of cattle deforestation and land conversion increased from 590,000 hectares (ha) in 2016 to 948,700 ha in 2020 – a 60% increase – while the total area of pasture actually decreased from 164 Mha in 2016 to 162.5 Mha in 2020, and total beef production also decreased from 10.2 million tonnes in 2016 to 9.8 million tonnes in 2020. The use of unproductive cattle ranching for land speculation may explain this apparently contradictory trend. This suggests that cattle farming, whether for beef production or land speculation, continues to be the main driver of deforestation and conversion.
The Cerrado and Amazon are threatened by cattle deforestation
Pasture has expanded most in the Cerrado and was associated with 255,385 ha of cattle deforestation in 2016 and 332,706 ha in 2020 – an area more than twice the size of the city of São Paulo. In the Amazon, cattle deforestation was 257,422 ha in 2016 and 291,955 ha in 2020.
The Amazon municipalities of Moju, São Félix do Xingu and Altamira, all in the state of Pará, led cattle deforestation with areas of 22,000 ha, 15,800 ha and 15,400 ha respectively in 2020. In the Cerrado, the municipality of Nova Crixás, in the state of Goias, had the fourth largest cattle deforestation in 2020 at 14,100 ha, followed by Pium, in the state of Tocantins, with 12,500 ha.
EU regulations create challenges and opportunities for Brazil’s cattle producers
From 30 December 2024, the EU deforestation regulation will require that companies trading agricultural commodities, including cattle-derived products from Brazil such as leather, beef and offal, demonstrate that they were not produced on recently deforested land. The regulation establishes a system to categorise the risk of deforestation in countries under which Brazil is likely to be classified as high risk.
Trase data shows that in 2020, just 388 of a total of 3,386 cattle-producing municipalities accounted for 95% of Brazil’s cattle deforestation (between 2016 and 2020). Despite this concentration, these municipalities represented 42% of Brazil’s cattle production in 2020 (4.3 million tonnes) and 52% of exports (1.3 million tonnes).
This means that nearly 3,000 cattle-producing municipalities in Brazil, representing 58% of production (6 million tonnes) and 48% of exports (1.2 million tonnes), have lower levels of deforestation and conversion risk. If implemented effectively, the EU’s risk-based approach to due diligence could focus regulatory efforts where they are most urgently needed, while lowering the cost of compliance for exports from low-risk areas. This includes focusing traceability efforts on the identification of individual animals and their birth farms in these target municipalities.
JBS, Minerva and Marfrig have the highest deforestation exposure
Trase analysis shows that the three largest beef traders – JBS, Minerva and Marfrig – continue to be the most exposed to deforestation and conversion from exports of Brazilian beef, all with an increasing trend in 2016–2020. JBS leads the pack with a deforestation exposure of 231,808 ha in 2020, up from 206,428 ha in 2016.
The Cooperativa dos Produtores de Carne e Derivados de Gurupi (Cooperfrigu), a farmers cooperative located in the municipality of Gurupi, state of Tocantis, ranked fourth in 2020 with a cattle deforestation exposure of 56,670 ha – doubling its exposure of 23,986 ha in 2016. Plena Alimentos, in fifth position, increased its cattle deforestation exposure by more than ten times in 2016–2020, while sixth-placed Mercurio Alimentos doubled its exposure over the same period.
JBS, Minerva, Marfrig and Cooperfrigu have achieved high levels of compliance with zero-deforestation commitments covering direct purchases of cattle in the Amazon. However, these only cover a small proportion of cattle exports (see section on zero-deforestation commitments below).
China has the largest beef import deforestation exposure
China (including Hong Kong special administrative region) continues to be by far the largest importing market exposed to cattle deforestation and conversion from Brazil, continuing an upward trend which began in 2013. In 2020, China’s imports were linked to 494,323 ha of cattle deforestation, followed by Egypt at 81,352 ha. However, China’s per-tonne deforestation exposure in 2020 was 281 ha – lower than Turkey with 664 ha and Egypt with 388 ha. The EU’s cattle deforestation exposure decreased slightly from 31,141 ha in 2016 to 28,502 ha in 2020.
Domestic consumption of beef accounts for about 75% of production in Brazil and is therefore the most exposed to cattle deforestation and land conversion. However, due to the lack of official data on domestic beef consumption, it is not possible to calculate the level of exposure. Trase partners are conducting research into this issue and will publish their findings in 2024.
Zero-deforestation commitments fail to protect the Cerrado and the Amazon
In the Amazon, 73% of beef exports in 2020 were covered by a zero-deforestation commitment (ZDC), unchanged from 2016. Despite these agreements having been established in 2009, they appear to be failing to protect native ecosystems . Between 2008 and 2021, 12 Mha of land in the Amazon was deforested and replaced with pasture.
Only about 64% of beef exports from the Cerrado were covered by a ZDC in 2020 compared with 21% in 2016, despite it being the biome most threatened by conversion to pasture. Across all of Brazil, 54% of beef exports in 2020 were covered by a ZDC, up from 29% in 2016.
ZDCs in the cattle sector comprise the Public Livestock Commitment agreed by the then four largest slaughterhouses operating in the Amazon (Bertin, Marfrig, Minerva, and JBS, which later merged with Bertin), also known as the G4 agreement, and the Term of Adjustment of Conduct (TAC) for beef that cover other slaughterhouses in the Amazon and is growing in size and scope. Under both agreements , slaughterhouses cannot purchase cattle from farms with deforestation in the Amazon after 2009. However, while the G4 agreement commits companies to preventing any deforestation, the TAC only requires the prevention of illegal deforestation. There are also a growing number of individual corporate commitments covering the Cerrado and other Amazon states where TACs are not available, such as Maranhão and Tocantins.
Brazil’s public prosecutor’s office recently audited the TAC ZDCs covering direct cattle purchases in five Amazon states from July 2020 to December 2021. Minerva and Marfrig achieved 100% compliance, while JBS achieved 93.8%. Mercurio Alimentos also achieved 100% compliance. This auditing process provides credible evidence that direct cattle purchases in the Amazon by these companies are not associated with deforestation.
However, TAC ZDCs only apply to direct cattle purchases in the Amazon from the last fattening farm that supplied cattle to the slaughterhouse. They do not cover purchases from farms further upstream in the beef supply chain where calves were bred and raised, and where deforestation may have occurred. Nor do they cover other biomes outside the Amazon aside from a portion of the Cerrado in Mato Grosso. As a result, TAC ZDCs only covered 14% of Brazil’s cattle exports in 2020.
Cooperfrigu and Plena Alimentos are located in Amazon states where the TAC system is unavailable. They claim to have individual corporate ZDCs, though no public information is available to confirm this, including in the Beef on Track transparency platform .
The Amazon is the main source of carbon from deforestation
Clearing forests and other natural ecosystems for cattle pasture releases large amounts of greenhouse gases which drive climate change. In Brazil, beef exports in 2020 were linked to the equivalent of 339.2 million tonnes of CO₂ due to deforestation in the past five years – 37% of the country's total land use change annual emissions in 2020.
While pasture for cattle ranching replaced slightly more native vegetation in the Cerrado than in the Amazon, emissions from land clearance were three times higher in the Amazon because of its carbon-rich forest. In 2020, the gross emissions from cattle deforestation in the Amazon linked to beef exports were 169.4 million tonnes of CO₂, while for the Cerrado they were 57.1 million tonnes of CO₂.
Explore the Brazil beef data on Trase Supply Chains
To reference this article, please use the citation: Reis, T., zu Ermgassen, E., & Pereira, O. (2023). Brazilian beef exports and deforestation. Trase. https://doi.org/10.48650/FTSC-RG72
A detailed explanation of Trase’s methodology is available at: Trase. (2023). SEI-PCS Brazil beef v2.2 supply chain map: Data sources and methods. Trase. https://doi.org/10.48650/CP2S-SP59
Download the Brazil beef dataset: zu Ermgassen, E. K. H. J., Suavet, C., Biddle, H., Su, N., Prada Moro, Y., Ribeiro, V., Carvalho, T., & Lathuillière, M.J. (2023). Brazil beef supply chain (2010-2020) (Version 2.2) [Data set]. Trase. https://doi.org/10.48650/AYAA-HH56