Slaughterhouse pledges to buy from deforestation-free ranches saw sharp drop in tree felling among suppliers
BARCELONA, May 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Commitments by Brazilian slaughterhouses to buy cattle only from ranches that ceased clearing rainforests in the Amazon region of Pará led to a sharp drop in tree felling among their suppliers, researchers said.
Historically, expansion of cattle pastures has driven deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, where they cover around two thirds of all deforested land.
A study led by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that before the agreements made in 2009, nearly four in 10 direct suppliers to the world's largest meatpacking company, JBS, were responsible for recent deforestation.
By 2013, the number had dropped to four in 100.
"Agribusiness can lead to large changes on the ground," said Holly Gibbs, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a co-author of the study published on Tuesday in the journal Conservation Letters.
In a separate study earlier this year, Gibbs and her team found that after major companies signed a 2006 pact not to buy soy grown on cleared forest land in the Brazilian Amazon, only about 1 percent of new soy expansion came at the expense of forest, compared with 30 percent before.
"The slaughterhouses and the soy traders are on the front lines of deforestation so they see the producers - the farmers and the ranchers - on a daily basis and they can immediately block market access," Gibbs told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The 2009 commitments in Brazil's beef sector - which has the world's largest herd of commercial cattle - produced results in a period of months, much faster than national policies such as the Forest Code, Gibbs added.
After the agreements were reached, the slaughterhouses actively blocked some ranches with deforestation from supplying them with meat, contributing to the rapid drop in the number of suppliers with deforested land.
The agreements with the slaughterhouses, a result of pressure from green groups and the federal prosecutor's office in Pará, stipulated also that ranchers must register their properties with the public rural environment registry.
Before the agreements, only 2 percent of JBS' suppliers had done so, but five months later nearly 60 percent had registered their properties and by 2013, 96 percent had done so, the study said.
Among 56 ranchers surveyed, 85 percent said they had done this in order to sell to JBS.
In the past 18 months or so, many multinational companies have announced they will no longer source commodities, such as palm oil and soy, from suppliers that cut down forests.
The results from the Brazilian beef study suggest these could have a powerful impact.
But the research was limited in scope, covering only 30 percent of the cattle slaughtered in Pará. It also highlighted loopholes in the agreements.
Ranches not selling to the three biggest meatpacking companies that set up deforestation monitoring systems were not tracked, and were able to do business with less demanding customers.
In addition, the agreements were only enforced for direct suppliers to the slaughterhouses they covered, meaning cattle could be moved from properties with deforestation to "clean" farms before being sold, in effect "laundering" the animals.
Gibbs also said the study had not assessed whether the agreements had an impact on wider deforestation rates in Pará, which accounted for 40 percent of Amazonian deforestation over the last decade.
The researchers recommended the beef agreements - which now cover two thirds of federally inspected slaughterhouses in the Brazilian Amazon - should be applied to indirect suppliers, and a universal monitoring system set up by all meatpackers and made available to retailers.
Gibbs said transparency of data was key to being able to judge the effectiveness of the commitments, as was the simplicity of the "zero deforestation" agreements.
That is not the case with some of the recent pledges made on palm oil, she noted, which include more complex definitions of which types of forest cannot be cut down.
Auditing of how the commitments are being put into practice by a third party that is not paid by the company is also important, she said.
"There certainly are challenges remaining with these (Brazilian beef) agreements ... but the fact that we have seen such a strong response in the portion of the supply chain that is governed by them really gives great hope," she said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Tim Pearce)
For more information, visit a new website created by the National Wildlife Federation, which also contributed to the study: A Path towards Zero-Deforestation Cattle
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