Supermarket Beef Is Battleground for Deforestation Debate


By Tracie McMillan

“The Plate,” National Geographic • May 2, 2016

One of Brazil’s largest supermarkets, Pão de Açúcar, has agreed to stop selling beef produced on deforested land or with forced labor by June 1. But while advocates hailed the announcement, they also questioned whether the retailer was being realistic about the promises it’s making.

In late March, the retailer announced it would nix contracts with suppliers who do not follow two basic requirements. First, that the beef they sell has not been produced on ranches created by cutting down Amazonian rainforest. While deforestation for cattle has slowed in recent years, roughly 60 percent of Amazonian land that has been clear-cut is now used to raise cattle.

And, second, that neither ranchers, nor the slaughterhouses that process the beef, use forced labor.

“It was a robust announcement,” says Adriana Charoux, who works on the Amazon campaign for Greenpeace Brasil. “A big and important step was taken.”

Globally, meat production is one of the primary drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, estimated to produce 15 percent of emissions, with beef accounting for about 41 percent of that (see Carnivore’s Dilemma). Across Latin America, one-third of emissions related to beef come from animals raised on deforested land. And while it is so far unusual for retail grocery chains to make public pledges around beef, McDonald’s has plans to introduce sustainable beef into some of its supply chain this year.

Environmentalists say that the retailer had plenty of room for improvement. Greenpeace Brasil ranked Pão de Açúcar fourth out of seven in a 2015 analysis of the efforts of the country’s largest supermarkets to battle deforestation. Advocates looked at whether retailers even had a procurement policy around beef, the strength of any such policies or standards in place, and whether those plans were transparent and traceable. Pão de Açúcar scored 15 percent; Walmart, by comparison, attained first place with a score of 62 percent. (The report preceded Pão de Açúcar’s announcement by about six months.)

Forced labor is a serious problem across rural Brazil, particularly in recently deforested areas that are remote and may still lack basic infrastructure such as roads and communications. The cattle industry is responsible for 62 percent of slave labor in Brasil, according to a 2009 report from the International Labor Organization. And, in February, NGO Reporter Brasil released a “dirty list” of 340 Brasilian companies fined for use of slave labor, singling out cattle ranching as a site of some of the worst abuses.

Even with all that to fix, the retailer promised to verify the reliability of its supply chains on an incredibly tight time frame: two months after the announcement.

That may be more ambitious than realistic, cautions Shawn MacDonald, director of programs and research at Verité, a research organization specializing in labor and corporate supply chains.

“No solution is going to happen overnight. People often…make an assumption that we’ll do audits and figure out who the bad people are and figure out other suppliers,” says MacDonald. “But you don’t have a pristine factory next to a sweatshop. Often, the labor exploitation is so rife…that you can’t avoid [it].”

And, says Charoux, there’s always the option of putting more pressure on. “If they don’t do what they are promising to do, we are going to be chasing them again and again.”

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