As large swathes of the Amazon continue to burn, critics say Brazil’s booming beef industry is, in part, to blame, as farmers are believed to have set the majority of the fires to clear land for cattle.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Brazil was the world’s largest exporter of beef in 2018, which has raised the question as to what role the global demand for beef has played in driving the devastating fires.
Cattle farming in Brazil
While it is common practice for farmers and loggers in Brazil to set land on fire to clear it for cattle, the tactic has sparked international outcry.
“No one at this point actually knows how many of the fires can be blamed on any particular source,” Kathy Hochstetler, an environmental science professor at the London School of Economics, said in a statement emailed to Global News. “But given the locations and number, it is very likely that the fires are being set by local landowners.”
“Some of these will be for cattle farming, while others will be for soybean production,” she continued. “Almost all of the latter is exported (as is a smaller share of the beef) — and is used in turn for animal feed in Europe, China and elsewhere.”
Cattle ranching and soy cultivation are often linked as soy replaces cattle pasture, pushing farmers farther into the Amazon.
Farmers have received at least tacit encouragement from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly said he believes Brazil should open the Amazon up to business interests — to allow mining, agricultural and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.
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“Brazil had been implementing very serious deforestation policies, which were working,” said Florencia Ortúzar, a lawyer with the Latin American environmental group AIDA. “It’s one of the countries that most emits greenhouse gas emissions, and it is mainly due to deforestation of the forest. With the new president Bolsonaro, he doesn’t mind about the environment. He dismantled all of that, and the Amazon is much more unprotected than before.
“This gives courage to all of these farmers. They are encouraged by these public policies that are making it easier to get into the Amazon.”
According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80 per cent of current deforestation rates.
And, new data released by Brazil’s space agency says the number of fires recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79 per cent this year through Aug. 25.
Brazilian beef exports
In 2018, Brazil provided close to 20 per cent of total global beef exports, according to the USDA.
It also had the second-largest cattle herd in the world, with 232 million, and reached its highest level of beef production at 9.9 million metric tons.
A report released by the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association (Abiec) — an association of over 30 Brazilian meat-packing companies — said in 2018 the country shipped 1.64 million tonnes of beef, generating US$6.57 billion in revenue.
According to Abiec, Hong Kong and China were the top two destinations for Brazil’s beef exports, accounting for 44 per cent of the country’s total beef shipments.
Hong Kong imported $1.5 billion worth in 2018, according to the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association. China imported the second most, at $939 million, followed by Iran ($559 million), Egypt ($529 million) and Russia ($487 million).
Rounding out the top 10 were the United States ($295 million), Chile ($218 million), Italy ($196 million), Netherlands ($178 million) and Saudi Arabia ($168 million).
All other countries accounted for $1.1 billion of Brazil’s beef exports.
In an email to Global News, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said in 2018, Canada imported $29.7 million in beef and veal products from Brazil.
The USDA projects that Brazil will continue its export growth trajectory for the next decade, reaching 2.9 million metric tons, or 23 per cent of the world’s total beef exports by 2028.
Ending beef consumption and banning beef imports
In August, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in a report that plant-based diets are a major opportunity for adapting to and mitigating climate change.
“It doesn’t mean one couldn’t ever eat beef, but that we collectively need to eat much less of it if we want to reduce the climate change and land degradation effects from it,“ Hochstetler said.
The report suggests that changing our diets could contribute 20 per cent of the effort needed to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius.
On Friday, Finland, which holds the European Union’s (EU) rotating chairmanship, suggested the EU consider banning Brazilian beef from its markets over the devastation caused by the fires.
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“Finance Minister Mika Lintila condemns the destruction of Amazon rainforests and suggests that the EU and Finland should urgently review the possibility of banning Brazilian beef imports,” Finland’s finance ministry said in a statement to Reuters.
A teetering trade deal
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has suggested a different approach, and has threatened to block a historic trade deal if Brazil refuses to act.
In June, The European Union struck a deal with Mercosur — a bloc comprised of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay an Uruguay — to remove the majority of tariffs on EU exports to Mercosur.
The new trade terms, once implemented, would also reduce to zero from 20 per cent a levy on beef imports into the EU under the so-called Hilton quota. That quota allows Brazil and Argentina to each export up to 10,000 tonnes of beef and 29,500 tonnes of prime beef cuts to the EU per year.
The head of Abiec, Antonio Camardelli, said previously the agreement would help to increase sales with existing trade partners and would also help Brazil access new markets such as Thailand and Indonesia.
WATCH: G7 close to deal on tackling Amazon fires as military planes work to douse flames
“A deal of this magnitude is like an invitation card for speaking with other countries and trade blocs,” Camardelli told Reuters.
The deal has been in negotiations for 20 years.
Varadkar said Dublin would vote against the deal unless Brazil acted to protect the rainforest.
WATCH: Canada to give $15 million, send water bombers to assist in fighting Amazon fires
Varadkar said he was very concerned at the record levels of rainforest destruction, and that the Irish government would closely monitor Brazil’s environmental actions in the two years until the Mercosur deal is ratified.
“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” he said in a statement.
From a summit in Biarritz, France on Monday, the Group of Seven nations pledged $20 million in addition to a separate $12 million from Britain and $11 million ($15 million CAD) from Canada to help fight the flames and protect the rainforest.
However, Bolsonaro said Tuesday he would not accept the offer unless French President Emmanuel Macron retracted comments he said were offensive.
Macron had questioned Bolsonaro’s trustworthiness and commitment to protecting biodiversity.
“First of all, Macron has to withdraw his insults. He called me a liar. Before we talk or accept anything from France … he must withdraw these words then we can talk,” Bolsonaro said. “First he withdraws, then offers (aid), then I will answer.”
WATCH: G7 makes $20 million Amazon aid deal
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, said the fires in the Amazon pose a “huge challenge.“
“The Amazon stores huge amounts of carbon, so when you have the Amazon burning as a result of deforestation, that is a huge challenge because it accelerates climate change,“ she said. “We’ve already seen the impacts of climate change on the world.“
WATCH: It would be unfortunate if Brazil didn’t accept assistance with Amazon wildfires, Catherine McKenna says
She says that is why it was “critically important“ that the G7 leaders “stepped up“ to provide aid.
“I think it’s not entirely clear whether Brazil is accepting this offer or not, but it would be unfortunate if they didn’t,“ she said. “We really do need to work together.“
-With files from Jessica Vomeiro, the Associated Press and Reuters