A Livestock Farmer’s Response to the Amazon Fires

The role local, humanely raised meat could play in preventing further destruction of the Amazon.



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.

Amazon fires, August 15-22. (NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens)

Amazon fires, August 15-22. (NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens)

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.

But doesn’t Brazil—the world’s largest exporter of beef and the country that has gained all the recent notoriety for agricultural fires in the Amazon—also produce “grass-fed beef”?

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.

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  1. Wednesday, September 4th, 2019
    Though I agree with the overall premise of this article, this article has numerous factual errors.

    The first of which is that up until the end of 2016, and since 2017, there have been bans on importing fresh (or frozen) beef from Brazil into the United States. Now if that ban is lifted, that's a different story. So yes re-implementing COOL is very important (not just for beef) as well is enforcing anti-trust laws since the the first (JBS) and the fourth (Mafrig) meatpacking companies are Brazilian based companies.

    The second error is that most beef in Brazil is grass fed. The country has very little feedlot capacity. The total inventory is approximately 214 mill head, with only 2.5 million feedlot capacity. Most (approx. 120 head) of Brazil's cattle isn't raised in the Amazon.

    The third error is what these cattle in Brazilian feedlots consume. Now with the small amount of cattle in feedlots, those cattle consume very little of the soybean meal grown. Soy is grown for meal and oil. Almost all soy is pressed for oil. The meal is what's leftover. Most (70%) of the oil goes to biofuel. Oil is 20% of the quantity, but 35% of the value of the crop. Most (70%) of Brazil's soy is exported to China. Most of the domestic use of soy goes to Brazil's HUGE chicken industry, which by weight produces approx 25% more chicken than beef.

    Now beef cattle gets all the blame for forest clearing because ostensibly that's what forest is cleared for, but the dynamics are a bit more complicated than that, With the soy moratorium implemented in 2006, already cleared land could be planted into soy, but newly cleared land couldn't. So what happened? Land already cleared was planted into soy, and new land was cleared to graze cattle. But this wasn't a one time event. Newly cleared land is no longer considered newly cleared land, so after two years, land used for grazing is converted to soy in a two step process to circumvent the soy moratorium. Soy (or cotton) is more profitable than raising beef cattle.

    But that's not all, more soy farming also moved to the Cerrado where there is no soy moratorium. In the Cerrado, there is no two step process. Consequently land that had been used for grazing caused cattle to be displaced from the Cerrado into the Amazon. This had happened before with sugarcane crops (also mainly used for ethanol). Where land used for grazing outside the Amazon was converted to sugarcane crop land which in turn led to ranchers moving into the Amazon.

    Note too, another error in this article, grasses don't just sprout up. Soil in the Amazon isn't very fertile. It's actually very acidic (oxalic). So it first has to be treated with lime to raise the pH, and then have phosphate applied to grow either seeded grasses or soy . Other crops also require nitrogen applications though soy doesn't since it's a legume.

    Deforestation has a number of other steps, but the underlying motivation is to maximize utilization of land after the land has been grabbed for profits from land speculation. Land without trees is worth 100 to 200 times more than land with trees on it. What facilitates deforestation is infrastructure. 80% of deforestation occurs within 30 miles of roads. A lot of these roads were built for hydroelectric dams, which are in large part built for mining, Smelting bauxite and iron ore takes a lot of electricity. Once roads are built, land grabbers grab land, and all the more valuable timber is removed. Then the land is clear. What was cleared is burned, The land is then sold at huge profits to ranchers, who then ranch the land for two years until the moratorium expires and then sold again at huge profits to soy (or other crop) growers. And then even more infrastructure is built to get mined materials or soy or other commodities to ports to ship largely to China but also to the EU and other points in the world. That infrastructure facilitates even deeper incursions into the Amazon.
  2. Wednesday, September 4th, 2019
    Unfortunately, eating "less meat" but "humanely raised" only works for those who can afford it -- and the ability to scale doesn't exist. It can't feed the masses. Many will continue to clamor for low-priced options from CAFOs and places like Brazil.
    We just need a fundamental shift in how we eat if we are going to save the planet and ourselves. The myth of "sustainable, humane meat" is actually hurting the effort to find a viable solution to feed the world. We need to eat plants. Animal agriculture, as we slash and burn natural habitats for plants and wild species, is potentially even destroying our ability to discover new plants that could provide new solutions to feed people beyond our limited, often myopic world.
    • Saturday, September 7th, 2019
      Your entire argument is based on false assumptions. What drives down the costs of cheap meat is cheap feed which derives a lot of its value from plant oils (35% of the value of soybean if from the oil) and, in the US, crop subsidies..

      So let's first stop externalizing costs, subsidizing cheap crop production, and stop using industrial oils for cooking, biofuels, ethanol as well as processed foods. It's the industrialization of agriculture that's the underlying problem. Cheap feeds for monogastric animals (pigs, chickens, dogs, cats) can be replaced with insects feeds that don't require all the land for soybean fields. Ruminants belong on grass.

      The only reason land doesn't immediately go into soy in the Amazon, like in the Cerrado, is because of the soy moratorium. Cattle are just place holders until land can't be flipped for agriculture. Soy is a lot more profitable than beef.

      As for the scaling, that's a huge fallacy with ruminants especially since most global inventory is already on grasses. Only 6 to 8% of global inventory is in the Amazon, and none of it needs to be there. With better grazing management, degraded land can be made more productive so 2 to 10 times the amount of ruminants can be placed on the same land, plus we can move to integrated systems where crops and Ag are produced on the SAME land.

      So the key to feeding people is restoring degraded land...not finding new species of plants. We're rapidly losing topsoil and desertifying landscapes. So we need better land management, including with well managed grazing systems, to rebuild and regenerate soil. Systems without livestock don't rebuild soil anywhere near as quickly.
  3. Richard Kanak
    Thursday, September 5th, 2019
    All should read Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King
  4. Saturday, September 14th, 2019
    HI and thanks for your thoughtful messages about local humanely raised beef. This is an important message as still so many of us, while wanting to perhaps even eliminate beef from our diets, still consume lots of it. The plant based versions are becoming good alternatives. But, I do believe there is a good role for farmers like you. Keep up the good work and writing.
  5. Kany
    Monday, September 16th, 2019
    Isn't it cruel and hypocritical for someone staying in a crowded city which was once a forest but now has no trace of trees to accuse someone in a distant land of clearing land to produce him food? May those who have preserved their forests be the loudest instead of those who 'failed' the most to shout the most. My point is we are being reactional, emotional and insensitive in our criticism of these developing countries. What they are doing is exactly what the first world did for them to be where they are today. For sustainability a compromise needs to be made not punitive reactional responses.