Mark Hillsdon reports on a €3.5m joint venture between the Sustainable Trade Initiative and the Carrefour Foundation has the potential to restore 150,000ha of tropical rainforest in the state

In Brazil, the sixth most populous country in the world, there are more cattle than people. Beef production remains one of the country’s most important industries, and in 2019 exports reached nearly $7.5bn. But beef is also the commodity that is most likely to be the cause of deforestation, with Yale’s Global Forest Atlas laying 80% of all Amazonian deforestation at the feet of the industry.

Much of it is inefficient too, with poor farming techniques allowing cattle to roam unchecked over vast tracts of land, with little fencing or management of pasture. So while in a country such as the Netherlands there are around four cows to every hectare, in Brazil it is just one, a figure that the industry is now looking to double.

“Livestock production in Brazil is quite complex; it is totally decentralised, it's spread over very extensive territories,” says Paulo Pianez, director of sustainability at Marfrig, the Brazilian-based food processor and second-largest beef producer in the world.

Halving the amount of land used for cattle would 'free up millions of hectares for agricultural production, and halve the major driver of deforestation'

Beef production is made up of three key stages, explains Pianez; the breeding, the raising and the preparation for slaughter. Big producers with technical and agricultural know-how, as well as big budgets, dominate the second two phases, he explains. “It's the early stage where the problems lie,” he says, with around 1.8 million separate, often relatively small and unproductive farms involved in calf production across Brazil.

Addressing this phase of the industry is the thinking behind the Sustainable Production of Calves programme, which aims to transform calf supply across the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso by intensifying production, improving the genetics of the animals as well as the pasture and overall farm management.

The programme is a €3.5m joint venture between the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and the Carrefour Foundation, and is working with over 450 smallholder calf producers across 258,000 hectares in Mato Grosso’s Juruena and Araguaia valleys, with the potential to protect and restore over 150,000ha of tropical rainforest.

The Sustainable Production of Calves programme aims to transform calf supply in Brazil. (Credit: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock)

The programme, which is also supported by the Mato Grosso state government as part of its Produce, Conserve and Include (PCI) strategy, will look to increase profits for calf producers while promoting better farming and agricultural practice.

This will include support to intensify cattle ranching and restore degraded pasture land, helping to accelerate economic development in the area without the need to clear more forests. It will also provide smallholders with technical assistance, access to credit and support complying with the Forest Code.

IDH’s global landscape director Daan Wensing, explains that halving the amount of land used for cattle ranching would “free up millions of hectares for agricultural production, and halve the major driver of deforestation and land degradation in Brazil.”

Small producers don't have the technical expertise to produce without suppression of native vegetation. We have to help these producers

In August last year, Marfrig signed a memorandum of understanding with IDH that will help to give scale to the solutions that are being piloted by the calves’ programme. The company issued a $500m sustainable transition bond to invest in purchasing cattle from the Amazon biome over the next decade, with the explicit aim for reaching out to calf producers.

“The small producers don't have the technical expertise to improve the pasture, they don't know how to produce without suppression of native vegetation,” says Pianez. “We have to help these producers to produce in a sustainable way.”

The partnership with IDH will focus on three fronts, says Pianez: developing a network of partners to provide technical support to cattle producers, financial mechanisms to help producers implement best industry practices, and new tracking systems.

Tereza Cristina, Brazil’s agriculture minister, is under increasing international pressure. (Credit: Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Pianez points out that when the finishing farmers purchase calves from producers, it is very difficult to keep track of provenance, often because there is a dealer acting as a go between.

What’s needed is a full traceability system, something that is funded and implemented by a partnership of business, civil society and, crucially, the government. It’s something that last year wouldn’t have seemed possible, he concedes, but now he senses change.

“I think that for this year the government speech and the government action is going to be a little bit different … because last year the government's speech was terrible,” he says. He says the agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina, has been coming under a lot of pressure from her international counterparts. “[She] is travelling round the world, and everybody is talking about the needs of Brazil to develop this kind of traceability,” says Pianez.

You can really see that the sector is moving towards thinking about sustainability. They see the business case for it

Several other beef related programmes also operate under the Mato Gross PCI. Pecsa (Amazon Sustainable Cattle Ranching) was the first cattle company in Latin America to be certified as a B Corporation and since 2015 it has been working to make livestock farming more sustainable. This has included introducing innovative farming technology and practices, as well as increasing farmers’ access to financial resources and markets for sustainable products.

The Canivete project, which covers both beef and milk and is run by local business Nutripura, is focused on increasing production through improved animal nutrition and pasture management, while the Araguaia’s League is a movement made up of 63 farms where there is now zero illegal deforestation.

Launched in 2014, it has also introduced a low carbon beef project, deploying agricultural techniques designed to cut farms’ carbon footprints and which has resulted in the avoidance of 580,000 tons of CO2 equivalent.

Brazilian-based Marfrig is the second-largest beef producer in the world. (Credit: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

“You can really see that the sector is moving towards thinking about sustainability and how to address it,” says Wensing. “They see the business case for it. There is pressure from the market, they see it for themselves that this is the way that is needed for the sector.

Pianez agrees. “It's totally possible to have sustainable livestock in Brazil. We can improve and increase our production without the suppression of one tree, but we have to have some technical assistance [especially] in the first phase of the production… that's the challenge we have in Brazil.”

Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.

Main picture credit: Bruno Kelly/Reuters
Brazilian beef  Marfrig  IDH  Carrefour Foundation  Mato Grosso  PCI  Amazon  Cerrado  Pecsa  Sustainable Production of Calves programme 

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