Better Beef

Can the cattle industry be remade to save the Amazon rainforest?

On a hot August morning, I stand atop a hill an hour and a half from Alta Floresta, a small city in central Brazil. Below me is ranchland, where white cattle graze in the dry season’s relentless sun. Lines of narrow rivers flanked by thin strips of trees lead, eventually, to distant forests. Other than where I stand, the landscape is flat and open, punctuated occasionally by lone Brazil-nut trees and termite mounds.

On one ranch at the valley bottom, just a handful of these mounds rise up from the ground, 1-meter-tall piles of tan earth. But on a neighboring property, across a dusty road, the ground is pockmarked with hundreds of termite towers. Termites normally dig elaborate tunnels beneath the ground. But when the soil becomes too compacted, they build above ground instead. “When you see that many termite mounds,” says Pedro Nogueira, a sustainable ranching expert, “that’s a clear sign of degraded pasture.”

On most of the 24 million hectares (59 million acres) of open pasture here in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest cattle-producing region, the soil is depleted. The rains have carried away the nutrient-rich topsoil and eroded the landscape to a point where the land can support little if any agricultural activity—including simply growing pasture grass. Yet Nogueira sees these collapsed landscapes not as a problem but as a solution to another crisis: the clearing of the Amazon rainforest.

Fifty years ago, this region’s topography was hidden from view under a blanket of thick jungle, teeming with wildlife and water. Then the settlers came. Poor farmers from southern Brazil were lured here in the 1970s by the promise of cheap farmland. They first cut and sold the valuable wood, using chainsaws to fell trees and trucks to carry them away. After they burned the downed vegetation—releasing huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere in the process—they planted grass and brought in cattle. “This is more or less the classic cycle of deforestation,” Nogueira says. Mix illegal land-grabbing and land speculation (a farmable piece of land is valued more highly than standing forest) with a decade or so of overzealous cattle, corn, and soy production, and you’ve got a runaway engine that drives 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon.

This practice of growing cattle on the torched remains of rainforest is the quickest route to cash-in-hand—if you don’t mind losing money on skinny cows and poor-quality meat in the long-term. Once the forest is razed to the ground, the thin layer of nutrients left behind from a burn is soon lost. Overgrazing and neglect, which are the norm throughout the Amazon, soon render the soil useless. Without the money or training to turn it around, ranchers are forced to abandon the land and find other livelihoods. Other intrepid settlers, or businessmen with deep pockets, move in and open new areas of forest to fill the production gap.

In southern Brazil, thanks mostly to industrial fertilizers, centuries-old cattle ranches are now being converted to plantations of soy, corn, sugar, and eucalyptus. Brazil’s cattle herds are expanding and moving north into the Amazon region. These local and regional shifts are also linked to global forces. Worldwide demand for beef is expected to double by 2050 as the middle class in developing countries, mostly in Asia and Africa, is able to afford more protein. Even though only 20 percent of Brazil’s beef is exported, the country is the second-largest producer of beef in the world after the U.S. If left unchecked, this increasing demand and shifting land use will mean more clearing of Brazil’s great tropical forests.

The 2-year-old company Nogueira works for, Pecsa (the Portuguese acronym for Sustainable Cattle Ranching in the Amazon), and its myriad partners have another idea. They believe that there is already enough open land in Brazil to meet the rising demand for beef, soy, and corn well into the future without cutting one more tree. Pecsa is a B-corp (a certified environmentally and socially responsible for-profit company) that aims to restore degraded land while transforming Amazon ranches into productive, profitable, and efficient businesses that are also sustainable.

As the sun blazed in the sky, Nogueira and I watch cool water, pumped from a river below, flow into a holding pond on the hilltop. We wander down the slope—to the ranch where just a few termite mounds protrude—following the path of buried irrigation pipes to their outlet at a group of watering troughs. Jose Enrique “Neno” da Silva, the main ranch hand, approaches on horseback. He and his assistant wear jeans, wide-brimmed woven hats unique to Mato Grosso cowboys, and long-sleeve shirts printed with the Pecsa logo. They drive a herd of cattle into an “area de lazier,” or leisure area, a shaded feeding and watering ground. Each leisure area is surrounded by three to six grazing parcels, and da Silva is responsible for moving the herds from lot to lot on a schedule cued by the height of the grass. On the traditional ranches where da Silva previously worked, cattle were spread out on large tracts of land and even allowed to graze in the forest reserves.

As basic as the Pecsa system sounds—fences, watering and feeding troughs, and rotational grazing—what’s happening on the ranches the company manages is at the heart of a larger strategy to end cattle ranching’s role in degrading and destroying Amazon ecosystems.

Tree-Cover Loss in Mato Grosso

From 2001 to 2016, the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso lost vast swaths of its tree cover. Some trees died; others were removed. Much of this loss is. due to deforestation by fire or mechanical harvesting; tree cover loss can also result from disease or storm damage. 

Data provided by Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

Western-wear clothing boutiques, feed stores, açai ice cream shops, and showrooms filled with shiny new farm tractors line the streets of downtown Alta Floresta, a city of 50,000 people at the southern edge of the Amazon basin. The streets here are laid out neatly in a grid, with middle-class houses on small yards next to neighborhood grocery stores. It’s less like the haphazard chaos of cities and towns elsewhere in the region and more like, well, Kansas, with a touch of Texas. While ranching itself has not been profitable for most who have tried it, the industry that grew up around it and the agribusiness that followed have laid a solid foundation for the economy here, and it shows.

Pecsa’s office sits on a corner of the main street beneath tall shade trees. Behind the shiny silver company sign out front, the office is bustling with young employees when I visit, all wearing Pecsa’s blue button-down shirts, baseball caps, and work boots. They are the sons and daughters of ranchers, agriculturalists, journalists, MBAs, and environmentalists—the majority of whom grew up in the region.

Vando Telles, Pecsa’s CEO, sits behind an uncluttered desk in an office that smells faintly of fresh paint. “This story has a personal side,” he begins. Telles grew up on a small ranch outside of town. He was born in Alta Floresta a few years after his dad arrived in 1976 as one of the first settlers, before the town was incorporated. “There was a lot of forest here and nothing else,” Telles says. “Only the little dirt roads that opened the area in the beginning.”

Telles’s father, along with thousands of other settlers, bought land from a man named Ariosto da Riva. Riva was known as “the last of the bandeirantes,” a controversial and often brutal band of men who opened the Amazon in search of gold with the help of the country’s then-military dictatorship. Riva bought more than a million acres from the government for the cost of a few head of cattle. As settlers and would-be ranchers followed the gold rush into the region, Riva set up a small office downtown and sold off parcels to the migrants. Thus began the decline of the region’s forests.

Land Use in Mato Grosso

In the. state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, both rainforest and savanna have been cleared to make way for food production. These operations include cattle ranching and farming. Soy is by far the dominant crop here, but cotton and sugarcane are also grown. This map shows the latest breakdown of forest, pasture, and agricultural lands in the state as of 2014.

Data provided by Kansas Biological Survey, Brazilian Agircultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), Earthstar Geographics.

A complex set of environmental laws originating in 1965 theoretically protects Brazil’s forests. The Forest Code requires landowners in the Amazon to retain 50 to 80 percent of their land in native vegetation; the percentage varies depending on lot size and timing of purchase. Clearing more than that was and still is considered illegal deforestation.

In the decades since, though, enforcement has come and gone with political will. For years, the government also encouraged settlers to clear forest along rivers, to ward off malaria and yellow fever. The challenge of enforcing the laws across more than 500 million hectares (2 million square miles) of thick and often impassable jungle, the conflicting agendas of various government ministries, and shifting political fortunes have all left the authority of the Forest Code severely hampered.

Residents in isolated counties like Alta Floresta continued cutting forest without penalty well into the 2000s. Local and federal enforcement was (and often still is) practically non-existent in secluded corners of the Amazon. Plus, the incentives to clear forest were powerful. “When you turn a forested area into pasture, the value of the land can go up by 1,000 percent or more, because now you can run an economic activity there,” says Carlos Saviani, a former Brazilian cattle rancher who is now vice-president of sustainable food programs for the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. (WWF).

For most of modern history, Brazilians along with the rest of the world, thought that standing forests were worthless and the Amazon limitless. Today, of course, we know better. Tropical forests are not only invaluable, species-rich ecosystems, but they play an essential role in regulating the planet’s climate. Without them, we board the bullet train to a warmer climate. Replace the trees with cattle, the second largest global emitter of the greenhouse gas methane, and now we’re on a rocket ship. So in the ’80s and ’90s, environmental groups started getting serious about protecting the Amazon—and calling out the beef industry for its role in deforestation.

In Alta Floresta at the time, tensions ran high between environmentalists and cattle ranchers. Environmentalists blamed ranchers for the loss of the forests. Ranchers argued that they lacked the resources to maintain or improve their farms, let alone to preserve forests. Telles lived that story as he was growing up. He watched his father work hard and struggle to make a profit, ultimately selling off cattle and land just to stay afloat. “The farms were always in a state of decline,” Telles says.

And the conflict only grew. On the international scene, NGOs such as the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), WWF, and Greenpeace brought mainstream media attention to the damage cattle ranching was causing in the Amazon. They put a spotlight on international companies that were buying beef from Amazon slaughterhouses. “These companies started to get a lot of pressure, not only from civil society and their consumers, but also from investors,” Saviani says. By the late ’90s, companies acquiesced, signing commitments to “zero deforestation.” The details of those commitments vary, but in general, “retailers are pledging to ensure that their products will not contain raw materials or ingredients produced on land that was recently cleared,” says Simon Hall, NWF’s manager for tropical forests and agriculture. McDonald’s and several other retailers stopped buying beef from the Amazon altogether.

That pressure worked its way down the supply chain, too. Under global scrutiny, a new Brazilian government found the political will to begin protecting forests. In 2007, they launched a campaign called the “Arc of Fire” and started cracking down on illegal deforestation. New satellite technology greatly improved their ability to pinpoint areas of recent logging. The government made a list of the 36 municipalities responsible for half of all the deforestation in the Amazon. Alta Floresta was one of them. By the time it ended up on that blacklist, Alta Floresta had already lost about half of its forests.

Shortly after the blacklist was published, and in a dramatic display of power, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency sent thousands of cars, trucks, and helicopters to Alta Floresta. Over several years, they raided farms, ranches, and timber operations, seized equipment, froze assets, and began making arrests and issuing fines.

In 2009, Brazil’s three largest slaughterhouses agreed to stop buying cattle from producers that had cleared forest illegally. They also pledged to start monitoring their suppliers. Alta Floresta’s producers were embargoed from selling their cattle to the major slaughterhouses and other buyers. They were also denied access to rural credit, on which many of the region’s small producers depended to make ends meet.

To reactivate the economic activities of the town, landowners had to register their land, declare the extent of deforestation, and develop a plan to restore those areas within 10 years. “We were seen by the entire country as bad people. From that point, everybody realized we had to take action,” Alta Floresta’s then-mayor told a researcher from Princeton University.

The mayor engaged the non-profit Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), which had been working on reforestation and other efforts in the region for years. The institute’s experts realized that to combat deforestation, they had to address the reasons cattle ranches were failing in the first place. “We never wanted to work with livestock, but we needed to in order to find a solution for this problem,” says Francisco Beduschi Neto, now the director of ICV’s sustainable ranching program. Rather than trying to fight cattle ranching, they decided to work with it. Environmentalists and ranchers began to find a common path forward.

In 2010, ICV hired Telles to launch a pilot project called “Novo Campo” with 10 partner ranches. They built a program that included replanting pasture with hardier grasses to improve the soil and recover degraded land, practicing rotational grazing to improve productivity, and training ranch staff and hiring management consultants to increase profits. “We didn’t do anything that was magical,” Telles says. “We got knowledge, resources, and applied it in the right way.” The results were impressive. Ranches were soon raising triple the amount of cattle on the same amount of land, and turning a healthy profit.

Considering the region’s past tendencies to ignore environmental laws, ICV’s leaders knew that monitoring would be important, so they created systems to ensure that no cattle in their supply chain would come from ranches with deforestation after 2008 (the cutoff date set in the Forest Code). Their partner ranches were also required to commit to zero deforestation and begin replanting riparian areas and forest reserves to meet Forest Code requirements.

The program’s early successes won international attention. In July 2015, with a multi-million-dollar investment from a capital fund, Telles and several other staff moved from ICV to create the for-profit company Pecsa. They expanded the program from about 400 to 10,000 hectares (from 988 to 24,700 acres) on medium- and large-size ranches, including the farm I visited with Nogueira.

In 2013, a group of producers, slaughterhouses, retailers, and NGOs formed the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, which combines voluntary commitments from businesses with monitoring by NGOs. It’s a big shift from the earlier, adversarial days. In the beginning, reputational risk was the main motivation for companies to sign zero-deforestation commitments. But today, those companies are realizing that climate change poses a serious risk to their supply chain as well.

When I stop by Pecsa’s offices, Telles is preparing for a visit from McDonald’s independent auditors. Last year, with the help of the Roundtable, Pecsa signed its first contract to supply McDonald’s restaurants in Rio de Janeiro, ending the fast-food giant’s 37-year moratorium on buying beef from the Amazon.

“It’s an important partnership,” Telles says.

Beduschi agrees: “When McDonald’s acts, a lot of people pay attention.”

I return to the Pecsa ranch early one morning to spend the day with da Silva, the ranch manager, and his crew. We sit at a long handmade table in da Silva’s open-air kitchen, with his wife, Maria, and their three daughters. Maria serves coffee in glass jars and we snack on farm cheese as we talk about life on the ranch. “Here we have more value than on other ranches,” da Silva says. “With the other farmers, you don’t have a time schedule, or weekends, or holidays, you just have to work.” In contrast, part of Pecsa’s agenda is to conform to Brazil’s labor laws. This is a unique policy in an industry that still exploits slave labor in remote areas.

A warm wind blows through the kitchen. “The weather has changed a lot,” da Silva says. “The rain takes a lot longer to arrive. But it won’t be long now.” He turns towards the distant clouds. “O ar é de chuva,” he says, which in Portuguese means, “this wind is of rain.”

Loading the feed tractor out on the ranch, da Silva runs his hand over dried bunch grass, an African variety selected and planted here by Pecsa. “When the rain comes, this grass will green up. Then the cattle really fatten up and build muscle mass,” he says.

Midwestern Brazil is in the middle of a serious drought. It has been two months without a drop of rain in Alta Floresta, slowing the growth of the soy and corn crops, which Pecsa relies on for supplemental feed. By using this feed during the dry season and the last couple months of the cows’ lives, Pecsa manages to get the animals to slaughter-weight a year earlier than on conventional ranches. That means the cattle emit at least 25 percent less methane than animals fed solely on pasture grasses.

While Pecsa’s intensification strategy increases the number of cattle on the land, it also reduces the amount of methane emitted per kilo of beef produced. According to a study conducted by an independent Brazilian research organization, all of the reforms on a Pecsa ranch taken together result in 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of beef than a conventional ranch in the same region.

Supplemental feeding, though, requires growing grain. That has raised concerns that changing from pasture-only to supplementary-feed practices will push demand for farmland into the forests once again.

But, says Laurent Micol, co-founder of Pecsa, raising more cattle in less space can free up land for grain production or conservation.

Biologists debate whether intensive or extensive—low-yield production over large areas—agriculture, is the best way to feed the world and save biodiversity. Some argue that sparing land through intensification elsewhere is most beneficial to biodiversity in the tropics. In frontier areas like Alta Floresta, agriculture pushes into previously undisturbed forest habitat, and habitat loss is the biggest cause of species decline. Intensification theoretically allows large tracts of intact ecosystems to be set aside as protected areas, in line with the letter of Brazil’s Forest Code. The challenge now is to get the on-the-ground reality to match the laws on paper.

On my last afternoon on the ranch, Nogueira and I cross a plank bridge and drop down to a creek. He points out chest-high trees growing in rows parallel to the water. Pecsa buys hardy species that do well in degraded land from a local nursery—mostly legumes, which fix nitrogen and improve the soil. They plant them along waterways that have been stripped of their forest on all six of the ranches they manage. Nogueira stands near a 1.2-meter (4-foot) Samauma tree (Ceiba samauma). “If all goes well, this will eventually grow to be the tallest tree in the forest,” he says.

Three blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara ararauna) squawk as they fly over the canopy of the farm’s forest reserve a few hundred yards away. Earlier that week, da Silva had seen jaguar (Panthera onca) tracks crossing the farm. “We’re starting to see lots of animals here,” he tells me. Fat three-toed tracks of a tapir (Tapirus terrestris) lead through the dried mud up to the water’s edge. Tapirs are the largest herbivorous mammal in South American forests, and normally, an elusive species that avoids human disturbance. In otherwise broken landscapes, wildlife will use forests along waterways as corridors to move between patches of forest. This one, still in its infancy, already seems to be doing its job.

We walk along the road through the ranch’s legal forest reserve. Tall trees tower overhead and thick undergrowth darkens the forest, obscuring the view beyond a few feet. The low afternoon light streaks through the trees and sets the dust above the road aglow. It is several degrees cooler and more humid under the forest canopy than out in the pasture. “That’s from the forest breathing,” says Denise Farias, Pecsa’s communications director, who is along for the walk.

While that sounds poetic, it is also a scientific fact. New research is showing how trees in tropical forests help to generate clouds and regulate precipitation, not just locally but around the globe. It also points to the impact that continued large-scale forest loss would have on surface temperature, the prevalence of fire, and the duration of droughts. It’s not a pleasant picture.

I ask Nogueira if he thinks Pecsa’s strategy for transforming the cattle industry will stop deforestation of the Amazon. “It’s one essential tool in the toolbox,” he says. “But it must be linked to enforcement and other strategies.”

Pecsa is now poised to scale up its project to 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) over the next six years. The demand for resources to transform ranching throughout the Amazon is gigantic. The cost to remodel farms and reforest waterways is about $1,100 per hectare. In northern Mato Grosso alone, there are 4.5 million hectares (11 million acres) of pasture. “It’s a big transition,” Micol says. “It is not going to happen in three or five years. It is going to take a decade or more to make this transition widespread.”

As I leave the ranch, the sun is setting in brilliant shades of orange and pink. A rainbow from the first rains of the wet season hangs just above a patch of forest in the distance. Alta Floresta may never return to the wild jungles that once covered it, but one day it might approximate something close, even with the cattle “Bringing back the forest is complex,” Beduschi says, “but not impossible.”

Map/map interactive by James Davidson

Christina Selby

Christina Selby is a conservation photographer and author based in Santa Fe. In her pursuit to bring important conservation issues to the public eye she has kayaked the Sea of Cortez, traversed Central America by bus, followed honey bees through the Himalayas, staked out wolves in the American Southwest, and pursued lost species in the Amazon rainforest. She is the author of two outdoor guidebooks and her work has appeared in such outlets as bioGraphic, Scientific American, National Geographic Online, High Country News, Outdoor Photographer, New Mexico Magazine, and Mongabay, among others.

Rodrigo Baleia

Baleia is a freelance environmental photojournalist based in southern Brazil, with extensive experience in the forests of the Amazon. His interest in wildlife started in 1991, when he founded a non-profit aquatic mammal study group and took part in the Cetacean Specialist Group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Today, he covers the environment and science for National Geographic Brazil as well as news agencies including Folhapress and Reuters TV.

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