Beefing Up Deforestation

01/01/2024
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    Restaurant workers move a sign advertising the opening of a beef hotpot restaurant in Beijing, China. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)
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    Cattle graze on land burned and deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil. The cattle industry in Brazil is a driver of destruction of the Amazon rainforest. (AP/Andre Penner)
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    Areas deforested for agriculture in the Mocajuba municipality in Para state, Brazil (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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    Cowboys manage a herd of cattle on a farm near the city of Rio Branco, Acre state, Brazil. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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    Indigenous Tembe children play soccer in the Tenetehar Wa Tembe village in the Alto Rio Guama Indigenous territory in Para state, Brazil. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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Beef sizzles on stoves, woks, and grills. Incomes in China grew in the last decade. More Chinese shoppers can afford the pricier meat. What does that have to do with deforestation of the Amazon rainforest? It comes down to globalization.

Globalization refers to the way that trade and technology connect the world’s countries and economies. China is the world’s biggest importer of beef, and Brazil is China’s biggest supplier. More beef moves from Brazil to China than between any other two countries.

But the Brazilian cattle industry is a major driver of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Cattle ranchers have long cleared land to turn it into pasture. In the 1960s, the Brazilian government incentivized land clearing and development. People migrated there to farm. They were trying to earn a living.

But they also brought harm to the area. The rainforest absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and produces oxygen. Its billions of trees suck groundwater and release it into the air through leaves. Cutting many trees disrupts the water cycle across Latin America and perhaps even as far as the midwestern United States. Deforestation pushes native tribes as well as thousands of plant and animal species out.

The Brazilian Amazon lost more than 4,000 square miles of rainforest last year. That’s the equivalent of nearly 3,000 soccer fields each day.

A third country is involved too: the United States. Utah-based PMI Foods shipped more than $1.7 billion in Brazilian beef over the last decade—more than 95% of it to China.

PMI gets more of its Brazilian beef from Brazil-based meat processing giant JBS SA than from anywhere else. In reports released between 2018 and 2023, Brazilian prosecutors found that JBS purchased huge numbers of cattle raised on illegally deforested land.

What can be done? Daniel Azeredo is a Brazilian federal prosecutor who has led crackdowns on illegal deforestation in the beef industry. He says that companies should avoid suppliers that violate environmental laws.

“The entire industry that buys those animals, that sells leather or meat, must make sure that [it doesn’t] allow products from areas of illegal deforestation,” Azeredo says.

That likely won’t solve the problem on its own. “The biodiversity is rich, but so many people are very poor,” explains soil scientist Judson Ferreira Valentim. “We can’t protect the rainforest without addressing the poverty of the Amazon.”

Why? Our world grows more and more interconnected. What happens in one country may affect another—or even the entire globe.

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