Beef eaten in Europe, Asia and now North America has traveled a long way from 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 the progress just can’t last. That is, unless the many businesses and government agencies involved in the supply chain start looking at the problem in a new way – at the landscape level.
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. The beef industry is at risk, too, as more and more retail and food products companies commit to sourcing sustainable beef to avoid damage to their reputations.
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: Zero Deforestation Zones
It’s time to switch the focus – from deforestation-free ranches to deforestation-free states or regions. 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. Zero deforestation zones mean 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 – zero deforestation zones – this complex problem can finally be solved. It’s time for retailers and food products companies to use their 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.