After moving my sheep to new pasture on a recent morning, I opened my laptop to find alarming photographs of the smoldering Amazon rainforest.
As has been widely reported, the human-set fires take place every year at this time, but after a significant reduction in burning in recent years, the rate has risen an alarming 84 percent since 2018, with over 70,000 fires burning by late August. Farmers and others are burning land to clear it for agricultural use—mainly for cattle grazing and soy that is raised to feed livestock.
While many are linking the burning rainforest to industrial animal agriculture and calling for Americans to stop eating meat, or to eat less meat, I asked myself: Does local, humanely raised meat have a role to play in preventing more destruction of the Amazon? Although the U.S. hasn’t imported fresh beef from Brazil since 2017 due to food safety concerns, it still imports millions of pounds a year in heat treated and shelf-stable beef.
I’ve chosen only humanely raised meat for the past 10 years because animal welfare is my number one priority, and I encourage others to do the same on my blog, Humaneitarian. There, I define “humanely raised” as pasture raised, grassfed, free range, or organic—basically any alternative to standard factory farm practices. On my farm in upstate New York, the lambs are raised on pasture, where they eat 100 percent grass.
My definition of “humanely raised” usually leads me (and others) to buy meat from local, small-scale farmers, or from larger companies trying to achieve a balance between animal welfare and high-volume production. It also leads me to buy pasture raised, i.e., “grass-finished” beef, because cows raised on grass instead of grain tend to be healthier, and some of those animals are grazed on pastures that are sustainably managed to improve the soil and sequester carbon.
Indeed, the majority of Brazil’s cattle are either raised on grasslands that once supported broadleaf tropical rainforest (a major digester of carbon released into the atmosphere) or are raised in feedlots on soy grown on former rainforest land. For instance, JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking company, which produces one-third of beef imports sent to North America, was also found to be buying beef raised on illegally deforested Amazon land. And it is estimated that cows cover 60 percent of all deforested land in Brazil, feasting on the grass that quickly grows after deforestation. One study found that pastures cover 80 percent of deforested areas in the Amazon.
Companies like JBS and others can therefore market Brazilian beef as “grass-fed.” To sell it in the U.S., all they must do is submit a claim to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) outlining the grass-feeding protocols on the farms and ranches they source from. The beef doesn’t even have to be 100 percent grass-fed—the USDA allows the “grass-fed” label to be used by producers who finish cattle on grain. The label can also be used on beef raised on deforested Amazon land.
So, not all grass-finished or “grass-fed” beef is created equal: It may come from my friends down the road who rotationally graze their cattle on mixed grass and legume pasture, or from a faraway rainforest ecosystem utterly vital for planetary stability. One 2017 report from Stone Barns Center found that 75 to 80 percent of grass-fed beef sold in the U.S. is imported.
I sympathize with small-scale cattle producers in Brazil—many of whom are likely earning a paltry living and clearing rainforest so they can survive. But as a resident of the world, I have a moral responsibility to make sure the dollars I spend support practices that do not rob other people of their livelihood as a result of the quickly-accelerating climate crisis.
As farmers who are beginning to see the threats of climate change to their own livelihood in upstate New York due to heavier rain events and erratic weather patterns, my husband and I rank among the latter.
But here’s the kicker: Even if most of us wanted to avoid buying Brazilian beef, doing so can be deceptively difficult. In 2015, mandatory Country of Origin Labeling laws (COOL) for meat were eliminated in the U.S. Producers are no longer required to state the country, or countries, where their meat comes from.
It is now even possible for beef and pork raised in foreign countries to be labeled as a “Product of USA” simply because the carcasses were shipped here, broken down, and packaged.
Of course, it’s also possible for ranchers outside the U.S. to raise beef in responsible ways—it’s just not easy to find their products. A number of initiatives around the world are inspiring farmers to raise livestock in a manner that does not destroy the world’s most vital ecosystems.
One way is through the use of alley cropping, a type of agroforestry that builds soil fertility and allows farmers to stay on the same land rather than slash-and-burn their way onto new plots. The Inga Foundation is teaching farmers how to use the Inga tree for this purpose in integrated crop-livestock systems. And rotational grazing practices—which I practice on my own farm—are spreading through the work of organizations like Regeneration International, the Savory Institute, and the Rodale Institute, which teach farmers how to manage grasslands so that they remain healthy and productive and capture carbon from the atmosphere.
Perhaps there is an entrepreneur who is right now planning to sell and market “Amazon-protecting beef from Brazil.”
As for the assertion that we should all “eat less meat,” I believe we already do that when we choose humanely raised meat—because it’s more expensive and challenging to find.
For now, I believe the best way for American meat eaters to respond to the Amazon fires is to do our homework on meat labeling. And to learn the name of every livestock farmer within 50 miles, so we can buy meat we trust, regardless of the labels.
Photo composite by Civil Eats.
This article was updated to reflect the fact that the U.S. does not currently import fresh beef from Brazil, though it still imports tens of millions of pounds of other Brazilian beef products per year.