Brazil meat giant JBS pledges to axe suppliers linked to deforestation

Campaigners welcome turnaround after pressure from investors but say 2025 deadline too long to resolve problems

Brazilian meat giant JBS said on Wednesday that it will monitor its entire supply chain by 2025, including problematic “indirect supplier” Amazon farms it currently has no control over, some of which have been linked to illegal deforestation.

“As a company we are assuming our responsibility to be a transformation agent for society, to be a catalyst. To build together with everyone a better world, a more sustainable Amazon and a better Brazil,” said JBS global CEO Gilberto Tomazoni in a virtual launch of the JBS Green Platform.

The announcement marks a turnaround for the world’s biggest meat company. Environmentalists saw it as a positive step, but some said the deadline was too long to resolve such an urgent issue.

Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon and Brazil has come under increasing pressure from international investors and other countries over rising devastation and fires. With Wednesday’s announcement, JBS is the third Brazilian meat company to begin responding to the pressure.

The company said its Green Platform will use blockchain technology and cattle movement documents, called GTAs (used for sanitary control), and suppliers that fail to cooperate and comply will be blocked from selling to the company. It will initially roll out the platform in Mato Grosso state, which has Brazil’s biggest cattle herd.

“What we are doing will impact the life of future generations in a relevant way,” Tomazoni said.

JBS will invest a minimum of £35m and match other donations to a total of £71m to create a Fund for the Amazon to foster sustainable development in communities in the region. One of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, Carlos Nobre, will serve on the fund’s consultative council. “If it works, it will reduce deforestation, because 80-90% of first deforestation is for cattle pasture,” Nobre said of the new tracing scheme. “This will have to be evaluated.”

The industry’s problems with Amazon suppliers are well documented and were exposed in a 2009 report by Greenpeace. After its release, Brazilian meat companies cut deals with Greenpeace and federal prosecutors and set up complex systems to monitor farms that sell directly to their slaughterhouses.

But in Brazil few cattle farms handle the entire life cycle of their animals, instead sourcing cattle birthed or fattened on other farms – the so-called “indirect suppliers”. And despite promising to monitor these indirect suppliers by 2011 in the deal signed two years earlier with Greenpeace, meat companies JBS, Minerva and Marfrig have so far failed to do so. Since July 2019, five investigations by the Guardian, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Brazilian agency Repórter Brasil, Greenpeace and Amnesty International have linked JBS suppliers to illegal deforestation.

With pressure mounting, major companies have complained to Brazilian ambassadors and met with Brazil’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, in charge of its Amazon Council, and congress leaders.

Nordea Asset Management – investment arm of northern Europe’s largest financial services group – dropped JBS from its portfolio in July. Last week a group of European countries – the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership, led by Germany – urged Brazil to take action in the Amazon. On Monday a coalition of NGOs and indigenous groups warned French food retailer Groupe Casino to stop selling beef linked to deforestation in Brazil and Colombia.

In July, Brazilian meat company Marfrig promised to monitor all its suppliers 2025 using systems such as Visipec – developed by the University of Wisconsin and the National Wildlife Federation and made available for free. Meat company Minerva is also testing the Visipec system. Until now, JBS had made promises to resolve its supply chain problems but provided no deadlines.

“This is very good because it recognises that monitoring indirect suppliers is needed. But the deadline is very long,” said Mauro Armelin, executive director of Friends of the Earth for the Brazilian Amazon. “It could already start using Visipec while it develops its own tool, and it should establish deadlines depending on the slaughterhouse, so plants near conservation units and indigenous lands where there is deforestation have shorter deadlines.”

Others were fiercely critical, noting that JBS had promised to monitor its indirect suppliers by 2011.

“The company is now giving itself an additional five years to continue to allow deforestation, illegality and human rights abuses in its supply chain in a bid to appease its investors,” said Greenpeace Brasil’s senior forest campaigner, Adriana Charoux. “This is simply unacceptable. The Amazon will have burned down by then.” She also noted that the JBS Green Platform did not include the Pantanal wetlands or Cerrado regions, where fires are currently raging.

Some investors were also skeptical. “JBS’s 2025 target for tracing cattle is too far away, we need immediate action,” said Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investments at Norway’s largest pension fund KLP. “It is a positive step but we have to see the detailed evidence in practice, not least given the controversies that have led to the company becoming a major global divestment target.”

Eric Pedersen, head of responsible investments at Nordea Asset Management, said: “While blockchain solutions need time to develop, 2025 is a long way away - and there are other measures that can be effective before that, for instance stricter controls so that cattle is not bought from owners of approved farms, if they also own farms on disputed land.”

Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental groups, welcomed the plan but said JBS will need government help to make it work. “In theory JBS can do what it is promising. But to guarantee it, they will need help with tracing from state and federal governments.”

Under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, such help is unlikely, Astrini said. Bolsonaro has refused to admit Brazil has an environmental crisis on its hands. In his speech opening the UN virtual general assembly on Tuesday, Bolsonaro insisted the country was the victim of the “most brutal disinformation campaigns about the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands.”

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Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

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