Beef eaten in Europe, Asia and North/South America is having a huge impact on its tropical source, where pastures were once covered with rainforest. Beef production has been a major culprit in tropical deforestation for half a century. Over the last decade, the South American beef industry has drastically improved its impact. But more progress is needed: a new, landscape level of engagement between business and governments can create lasting, scalable change.
The Problem with Beef Production: Islands of Green in a Sea of Deforestation
Government agencies as well as powerful processing companies monitor the South American beef industry by keeping tabs on individual ranches. But the system doesn’t cover every operation consistently from calving to slaughter – and the many ranching operations that fall through the cracks can still clear virgin rainforest once their herds have exhausted existing pastures. On the other hand, ranchers who preserve the forest on or around their land aren’t rewarded – they may actually face paperwork and red tape. Some of them reward themselves, illegally, by taking cash and calves from ranchers who aren’t following the rules and so can’t sell directly to some processing companies. When you zoom out from individual ranches, the result is a landscape where protected pockets of forest are always at risk. Businesses sourcing this beef are at risk as well: mitigating legal, reputational and extreme-weather related risks are why more and more retail and food product companies are committing to sourcing sustainable beef.
Following the Supply Chain – Beef
A sketch of the supply chain shows just how unsustainable the current landscape is – for native flora and fauna and for the beef industry, not to mention the companies it supplies with meat. It also reveals the good news: when retailers and food products companies collaborate with processors and government agencies, they can change the landscape of beef production.
Think Bigger: Protecting Entire Landscapes
It’s time to switch the focus – from deforestation-free ranches to deforestation-free states or regions (typically called the “jurisdictional approach). In this new system, entire political jurisdictions tighten their laws, toughen enforcement and offer worthwhile economic incentives for sustainable ranching in order to eliminate deforestation within their borders. Focusing on jurisdictions means entire landscapes are protected because there are no more cracks to fall through. This system takes cooperation between government and private sectors: Companies up the supply chain commit to sourcing from jurisdictions that have effectively halted deforestation, opening up new markets for ranchers and processors both. Jurisdictions earn access to international programs and funds that connect ranchers with resources for improving their land’s health and keeping their herds productive – so they have no need to clear new pastures.
Lever or Link, You’re Part of the Solution
Tropical deforestation has been on everyone’s radar for decades, but now, if all the links in the supply chain work toward the same goal – deforestation-free jurisdictions – this complex problem can finally be solved, by focusing on these four key areas:
Enforcement: call on government to improve enforcement of forest laws;
Sustainable intensification: help farmers connect with resources to grow more with less;
Monitoring: collectively track progress for more effective—and efficient—monitoring;
Incentives for forest protection: encourage innovative financing to make trees worth more alive than dead.
The key to success? Collective action: it’s time for retailers and food products companies to use their collective leverage to help beef processors, ranchers and government agencies preserve the very land they depend on – and improve the health of their businesses, local economies and an entire ecosystem.