Source countries and end uses
The global production of beef has remained fairly steady for the past five years, and is projected to reach 59 million tons in 2016. The leading producers are the US and Brazil, which produced 10.8m and 9.4m tons in 2015 respectively. The European Union, Paraguay, China and India are also significant producers (USDA 2016).
The majority of beef produced globally is consumed within the country of origin. For example, only about 15 per cent of beef from Brazil is exported, but with this share the country is nevertheless the world’s biggest exporter – primarily to Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, the EU, Venezuela, Chile and Hong Kong (Brack et al. 2016).
In most developed countries beef consumption is declining; US and EU consumption has declined by about two per cent annually since 2007. However, this has been partially offset by increasing consumption in emerging economies, especially Brazil (now the second biggest consumer of beef, after the US) but also in India, Pakistan and China (ibid.).
In addition to meat, cattle ranching produces leather goods that are traded globally, though in the countries affected by related deforestation these are largely a byproduct of demand for beef.
Relative importance as a driver of deforestation
Beef drives more deforestation globally than any other agricultural commodities. In the countries that account for the vast proportion of deforestation, cattle ranching causes more forest loss than the next three commodities (soy, palm oil and wood) combined (Henders et al. 2015). The majority of this deforestation takes place in Brazil, though cattle ranching is also a well-documented major driver of deforestation in many other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia (Lawson 2014).
In South America, beef was responsible for 71 per cent of total deforestation between 1990 and 2005, compared to just 17 per cent for all other drivers combined (De Sy et al. 2015). Beef also outstrips the other three commodities in terms of contributions to global warming emissions, despite the fact that the forests cleared for palm oil and wood products in South-East Asia tend to be more carbon-rich and therefore produce more emissions per hectare.
Based on a review of available evidence, Grieg-Gran et al. (2007) estimate that 17.1 Mha of the 22.4 Mha of forest lost (76 per cent) in the Brazilian Amazon were lost for cattle pasture between 1995 and 2005.
The Government of Paraguay has estimated that 40 per cent of forest loss in the Atlantic forests in the east of the country was due to cattle ranching (Republic of Paraguay 2008). Forest loss in the Atlantic forest was dramatically curbed subsequent to the passage of a ‘zero deforestation’ law in 2004. But the law did not apply to the Gran Chaco biome in the west of Paraguay, with the consequence that ranching was displaced from the Atlantic forests to the Chaco (The Guardian 2016). Strictures on deforestation in Brazil have had a similar impact, displacing ranching over the border and into Paraguay. Rates of forest loss in the Paraguayan Chaco are now among the highest in the world (Hansen et al. 2013), due almost entirely to cattle ranching.
Illegalities associated with production
Illegalities are the norm in the conversion of forest for cattle ranching in all the major producing countries in Latin America.
In Brazil the most common illegalities relating to conversion of forests are fraudulent land titles and the failure to retain the legally required minimum percentage of natural forest on each property (known as “legal reserves” under Brazilian law). Approximately 65 per cent of total beef exports from Brazil in 2012 were associated with illegal deforestation, according to Forest Trends (Lawson 2014). The estimates used were based solely on breaches of legal reserves, and are therefore likely an underestimate of overall levels of non-compliance as it assumes that conversion is legal in all other respects.
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Other regulatory breaches, such as converting forests outside legal boundaries (including incursions into protected areas), and the clearing of other forest conservation zones within properties (such as streamside buffers) are also common. While the Brazilian government has been successful in recent years in reducing illegal deforestation, the problem continues, and much of the legacy of past illegal deforestation has yet to be effectively addressed (ibid.).
In Paraguay bans on forest conversion for agricultural purposes are frequently circumvented. The 2004 total ban on forest conversion in the eastern part of the country has been regularly violated in districts along the border with Brazil, with land being converted for pasture or agriculture (ibid.). It has been estimated that 650,000 hectares of forest in Paraguay was illegally converted for export-oriented agriculture during 2000-12 and that 20 per cent of Paraguay’s beef exports originate from illegally deforested land (ibid). In one relatively recent high profile example, WWF Paraguay published satellite images showing more than 12,000 ha were illegally deforested between 2010 and 2013 for a single cattle ranch in the Department of San Pedro (WWF 2013).
In Argentina, cattle ranching is one of the key drivers of deforestation in the Chaco forests in the north of the country, where a recent analysis found that at least 35 per cent of deforestation was illegal (Greenpeace 2016). Nine per cent of Argentina’s beef exports are also estimated to be linked to illegal deforestation (Lawson 2014).
USDA 2016. “Oilseeds: World Markets and Trade” September 2016
Brack et al. 2016. “Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains Trade, Consumption and Deforestation” January 2016
Henders et al. 2015. “Trading forests: land-use change and carbon emissions embodied in
production and exports of forest-risk commodities” December 2015
in South America” November 2015
Grieg-Gran et al. 2007 “The Dutch Economic Contribution to Worldwide Deforestation and Forest Degradation” September 2007
The Guardian, 2016. “Disappearing world: Paraguay’s Ayoreo people fight devastating land sales”. 25th January 2016
Republic of Paraguay 2008. “Forest Carbon Partnership Facility Readiness Plan Idea Note (R-PIN)” July 2008
WWF Paraguay. 2013. “Alarmante deforestación en tierras de Teixeira, en Paso Kurusu.” WWF Paraguay, October 25
Greenpeace. 2016. INFORME: Deforestación en el norte de Argentina (enero – agosto 2016)”. September 2016
This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see news on beef here.