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Behavior Change
Why We've Got Beef with Some of the US' Largest Food Companies

This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report — authored by myself and UCS analyst Lael Goodman — that scored 13 fast food, retail, and food manufacturing companies on their deforestation-free beef commitments and practices.

This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report — authored by myself and UCS analyst Lael Goodman — that scored 13 fast food, retail, and food manufacturing companies on their deforestation-free beef commitments and practices. Our research revealed that some of the largest US consumer goods companies are failing to ensure their beef products are not fueling tropical deforestation: We found that all 13 companies — Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Jack Link’s, Kroger, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Subway, Walmart, and Wendy’s — lack adequate zero-deforestation policies and practices needed to keep tropical deforestation out of their beef supply chains.

Beef production has proven to be a top driver of tropical deforestation in South America and globally. Given that the impact of beef production on forests is felt the most in South America, where land ultimately used for cattle ranches frequently replaces tropical forests, multinational corporations should ensure production of the beef they source from this continent is free from deforestation.

Meanwhile, the US is the top destination for processed beef exports from Brazil, the powerhouse beef exporter in South America. US consumers are exposed to the possibility of buying processed beef that fueled deforestation in South America when they buy Jack Link’s beef jerky, pet food manufactured by Mars or Nestlé, and corned beef manufactured by ConAgra and Hormel or sold by Kroger and Safeway. However, most beef produced in South America is consumed in-country. Many US companies, including fast food giants such as Burger King, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Subway and Wendy’s, and retailers including Walmart, operate in South America and sell beef from the region to their South American customers. The report found all 13 companies have a long way to go before they can confirm that all of their beef products are deforestation-free.

These corporations need to make more progress by working with their supplying meatpackers to implement changes in practices. Meatpackers play a pivotal role because they are the middlemen, and have immense influence over ranchers’ market access in South America. After buying cattle from ranchers, they slaughter, process and package the beef before selling it to global companies. Thus, a change in meatpackers’ operations to ensure all of their supplying ranches do not have recent deforestation on their lands can have enormous positive impacts for forests.

These meatpackers include those that signed the Minimum Criteria for Industrial Scale Cattle Operations in the Brazilian Amazon Biome, more generally known as the G4 or Cattle Agreement. The meatpackers that signed the agreement in 2009 — JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva — agreed to eliminate deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from their beef supply chains. However, these G4 meatpackers only monitor for deforestation on certain ranches in their supply chain, and only in the Brazilian Amazon, rather than all forested ecosystems at risk in South America.

For instance, the Cerrado (in Brazil, pictured above) and the Chaco (in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia) are both experiencing conversion for pastureland at high rates. In only five years, deforesting and burning of the Cerrado released 1,449 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent into the air, equal to the annual emissions of about 306 million cars, with conversion to pasture responsible for more than half of them. Forest clearance for beef production is also a huge problem in the Paraguayan Chaco, which has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

Thus, consumer goods companies that source primarily from G4 meatpackers must work with their suppliers to expand monitoring of deforestation to all forested ecosystems and supplying ranches, while becoming much more transparent themselves about how they’re addressing deforestation risk in their supply chains.

Mars and Nestlé also source primarily from G4 meatpackers but have zero-deforestation commitments in place. However, they must make greater strides in implementing them. Hormel has released limited information on some of the zero-deforestation practices of its supplying meatpackers, but it must work with them to strengthen these practices and go much further in proving it has strong zero-deforestation goals and an action plan to achieve them.

Even the companies making the most progress — McDonald’s and Walmart — still have loopholes in their policies and practices that can allow for continued deforestation. Similar to G4 meatpackers, they have focused their implementation of their zero-deforestation commitments only on certain ranches and primarily on the Brazilian Amazon, leaving other critical forested areas at risk of conversion.

Beef can be produced without deforestation. Consumers and investors are increasingly calling on companies to provide quality assurance that their products are produced in a sustainable manner, as evidenced by the wave of consumer goods companies adopting deforestation-free palm oil commitments in the past few years. UCS is working to make deforestation-free beef the industry norm by launching a campaign to mobilize consumers to tell these companies to adopt zero-deforestation policies and work with their suppliers to turn these policies into real action on the ground.