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Beef and Soya Imports Linked to Amazon Deforestation

Annie Grey explores the devastating impact the EU's meat consumption is having on the Brazilian rainforest.

Photo by Justin Clark

Around one-fifth of the European Union’s beef and soya imports from Brazil each year have been linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna which is destroying one of the world’s most invaluable habitats

The extent of European consumers’ role in the damage of the two globally important biodiversity regions has been revealed as Brazil faces a futile year for deforestation due to predicted droughts and the actions of illegal loggers.

A recent study by Science Mag found 2% of the ranches in the area are responsible for 62% of illegal deforestation. Researchers used freely available maps and data to identify the specific farms and ranches clearing forests to produce soya and beef destined for Europe.

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The Scale of EU Impact

International demand for goods ranks as a key driver of land clearance in the Amazon. Data from the WWF and the RSPB found a link between the UK’s level of demand of goods and the destruction occurring in the country.

Brazil represents 13.9% of the total UK overseas land footprint, equating on average to more than 800,000 hectares of land relied upon to supply the country’s demand for agricultural products, despite the fact that some of the products could be sourced closer to home. 

With Brazil currently the single biggest exporter of agricultural products to the EU worldwide, data suggests that approximately 1.9 million metric tons of soya grown on illegally deforested properties may reach EU markets annually. 

Between 25% - 40% of Europe’s beef imports come from Brazil. The study estimates that 12% of the 4.1 million cows traded to slaughterhouses in the states of Para and Mato Grosso in 2018 came directly from properties that had potential links to illegal deforestation.  This figure increases to approximately 50% when taking into account suppliers that had indirect ties to illegal deforestation. 

Researchers warn that in the state of Mato Grosso, contamination of beef exports by illegal deforestation could be as high as 44% in the Amazon, and 61% in the Cerrado regions. 

Long Term Repercussions

Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, said last year that: “Protecting the forest is our duty, acting to combat illegal deforestation and any other criminal activities that put our Amazon at risk.”  However, the far-right and pro-business president also vowed to explore the rainforest’s economic potential, and has supported commercial deforestation in the past.

The Brazilian government has $2.65 billion in shares in global beef and leather processors who profit from the cheap supply of cattle reared on areas of the Amazon that have been illegally destroyed, suggesting that the state endorses the mindless destruction of the forest it is meant to be protecting.

Deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest increased by nearly 64% in April this year compared to the same month last year, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The first trimester of 2020 had already seen more than a 50% increase in deforestation compared to the previous year, according to INPE data, despite concerns raised around the subject during the devastating forest fires seen in 2019.

The European Union has criticised the Brazilian government over concerns that increasing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Brazil could cancel out EU climate change mitigation efforts.  This has increased calls to boycott Brazilian products and withhold ratification of the trade agreement reached in 2019 between the EU and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. 

A study by the science journal, Nature, suggests the economic benefit of leaving the Amazon rainforest in its current state would be $8.2bn a year, but continued deforestation of the Amazon would lead to a fall in rainwater and agricultural losses of $442m, as well as other social and economic losses that could result in a loss totalling $3.5 trillion over a 30-year period. The cost of saving the Amazon is estimated to be only $64bn in comparison, which could help restore the landscape and change agricultural practices, thus also saving the ‘Earth’s lungs.’

Despite increased climate change mitigation efforts around the world, areas failing to conform are running the risk of increasing the long-term impacts of global warming on a huge scale. 

You may also like: Fast Food: The Enemy of The Amazon and Beyond.

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