Companies’ zero-deforestation commitments shielded some 7000 km2 of virgin forest from destruction via cattle-farming in the Brazilian Amazon between 2010 and 2018. That figure could triple—effectively halving cattle-driven deforestation in the region—if more companies adopted zero deforestation commitments, a new study finds.
These impressive figures are all the more so in the face of growing skepticism about the benefits of sustainability commitments to truly shift the dial on deforestation in the world’s tropical regions.
Cattle farming, alone, accounts for an estimated 70% of deforestation in the Amazon, most of it illegal. Under growing political and public pressure in recent years, companies like the cattle giant JBS, have signed zero-deforestation commitments. But how well these work is clouded by complex and sometimes inscrutable supply chains.
To try and get a better handle on what’s going on on the ground, the researchers examined the records of beef-buying companies that were signatories to two forest agreements: the Conduct Adjustment Agreements (TAC), led by the Brazilian government to stop companies purchasing cattle farmed on illegally-deforested land; and the more ambitious G4, which requires that companies reject cattle that caused any deforestation after the agreement came into force in 2009.
Using this information, the researchers could trace back to the slaughterhouses that those signatory companies purchase from, focusing specifically on three key cattle-farming Amazonian states. From there, they used public data on transport links between farms and the slaughterhouses in question to determine the regions those slaughtered cattle had likely come from. Satellite data from those farming regions was then used to reveal deforestation rates, relating especially to the establishment of cattle pastures.
This mapping revealed the terrestrial ‘footprint’ of individual companies and therefore the potential sphere of influence of the forest agreements they had signed onto. Having this detailed sourcing information then made it easier to sync it up with deforestation data to check whether company policies had indeed shaped land use, explains Sam Levy, an interdisciplinary land system scientist at New York University, and lead author on the new study. All the data came from the period between 2010 to 2018 (before Jair Bolsonaro became president and certain records became less transparent.)
Their results showed that regions with more coverage by a company that had forest commitments, also had slower rates of deforestation there—and vice versa. This effect was especially notable for the G4 Agreement. For instance, Pará, a northern state in Brazil, had the highest deforestation rates over the study period, and was also the state with the least ‘coverage’ by the G4, the study showed.
The real impact became clear when the researchers modeled what would happen if these policies hadn’t existed. Without the G4, there would have been an additional 7000 km2—about 15%—more forest loss than had actually occurred with companies signing on to this policy.
But, “this reduction could have been much greater had the market share of companies with these policies been higher,” Levy says. When Levy and team modeled the effects of all companies who operate in the region signing and implementing the G4 between 2010 and 2018, they found that cattle-driven deforestation would have decreased by 51%. This is a missed opportunity that could have saved an area of land of about 24,000 km2.
They hypothesize that as the influence of committed companies grows in a region, it shrinks the pool of buyers willing to purchase cattle grown on deforested land, Levy explains. These traders then need to travel longer distances, at greater expense, to sell cattle—and this way, deforestation-dependent cattle are gradually squeezed out of the picture.
Still, zero-deforestation commitments are not a silver bullet. Forest loss continued in Brazil throughout the study period, so it evidently has limits. That could partly be because a large share of farmed cattle is consumed domestically—production that may be subject to fewer restrictive policies than exported goods. There are also other drivers of deforestation, for instance the use of cattle not for beef or leather production, but simply as a means of occupying Amazonian land. This is one clear example of why “demand side pressures will always have limited effectiveness,” the researchers write in their paper.
Ultimately, deforestation is a huge and complex problem that needs a multi-pronged approach. But this study reveals how crucial well-implemented forest commitments could be in that mix: “More companies with rigorous zero-deforestation commitments will help reduce the climate impacts of Brazilian cattle and conserve the Amazon rainforest,” Levy says.
Levy et. al. “Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could be halved by scaling up the implementation of zero-deforestation cattle commitments.” Global Change Biology. 2023.
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