More than 800m trees have been cut down in the Amazon rainforest in just six years to feed the world’s appetite for Brazilian beef, according to a new investigation, despite dire warnings about the forest’s importance in fighting the climate crisis.
A data-driven investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the Guardian, Repórter Brasil and Forbidden Stories shows systematic and vast forest loss linked to cattle farming.
The beef industry in Brazil has consistently pledged to avoid farms linked to deforestation. However, the data suggests that 1.7m hectares (4.2m acres) of the Amazon was destroyed near meat plants exporting beef around the world.
The investigation is part of Forbidden Stories’ Bruno and Dom project. It continues the work of Bruno Pereira, an Indigenous peoples expert, and Dom Phillips, a journalist who was a longtime contributor to the Guardian. The two men were killed in the Amazon last year.
Deforestation across Brazil soared between 2019 and 2022 under the then president, Jair Bolsonaro, with cattle ranching being the number one cause. The new administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has promised to curb the destruction.
Researchers at the AidEnvironment consultancy used satellite imagery, livestock movement records and other data to calculate estimated forest loss over six years, between 2017 and 2022 on thousands of ranches near more than 20 slaughterhouses. All the meat plants were owned by Brazil’s big three beef operators and exporters – JBS, Marfrig and Minerva.
To find the farms that were most likely to have supplied each slaughterhouse, the researchers looked at “buying zones”; areas based on transport connections and other factors, including verification using interviews with plant representatives. All the meat plants exported widely, including to the EU, the UK and China, the world’s biggest buyer of Brazilian beef.
The research focused on slaughterhouses in the states of Mato Grosso, Pará and Rondônia, important frontiers of deforestation associated with ranching. It is likely the overall figure for deforestation on farms supplying JBS, Marfrig and Minerva is higher, because they run other plants elsewhere in the Amazon.
All three companies say they operate strict compliance procedures, in an open and honest manner, to ensure they are meeting their sustainable goals.
Nestlé and the German meat company Tönnies, which had supplied Lidl and Aldi, were among those to have apparently bought meat from the plants featured in the study. Dozens of wholesale buyers in various EU countries, some of which supply the catering businesses that serve schools and hospitals, also appeared in the list of buyers.
Nestlé said two of the meatpackers were not currently part of its supply chain, and added: “We may scrutinise business relationships with our suppliers who are unwilling or unable to address gaps in compliance with our standards.”
Tönnies said: “These Brazilian companies process many thousands of animals per year for export,” and claimed it was unclear whether the company was the recipient of products from plants linked to deforestation. Lidl and Aldi said they stopped selling Brazilian beef in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
Some of the meat shipped to the EU could breach new laws designed to combat deforestation in supply chains. Regulations adopted in April mean products brought into the EU cannot be linked to any deforestation that happened after December 2020.
Alex Wijeratna, a senior director at the Mighty Earth advocacy organisation, said: “The Amazon is very close to a tipping point. So these types of figures are very alarming because the Amazon can’t afford to be losing this number of trees … this has planetary implications.”
The MEP Delara Burkhardt said the findings reinforced the need for greater legislation globally to tackle deforestation: “The destruction of the Amazon is not only a Brazilian affair. It is also an affair of other parts of the world, like the EU, the UK, or China that import Amazon deforestation. That is why the consumer countries should enact supply chain laws to make sure that the meat they import is produced without inducing deforestation. I hope that the new EU law against imported deforestation will be a blueprint for other major importers like China to follow.”
Aidenvironment found that 13 meat plants owned by JBS were linked to ranches where there had been forest clearance, felling or burning. For Marfrig and Minerva there were six and three plants respectively.
According to a separate Guardian analysis for the Bruno and Dom project, the Amazon slaughterhouses belonging to these companies processed cattle worth more than $5bn (£4bn) while still in Brazil in 2022: more value will be added further along the complex supply chain, and by an overwhelming margin the economic value of this industry is being realised outside Brazil, on dinner plates at restaurants in Beijing and New York. They have repeatedly been criticised for deforestation in their supply chains over the last decade.
Other companies are also known to source cattle from the same buying zones.
In cases where the full beef supply chain could be mapped, the study estimated that since 2017 there had been more than 100 instances of forest loss on farms that directly supplied company plants.
More than 2,000 hectares of forest were apparently destroyed on a single ranch between 2018 and 2021 – São Pedro do Guaporé farm, in Pontes e Lacerda, Mato Grosso state – which sold nearly 500 cattle to JBS, though the copany said the farm was ‘blocked’ when its due diligences identified irregularities with them. The JBS meat plant that processed these cattle sold beef to the UK and elsewhere in recent years.
The farm was also connected to the indirect supply of more than 18,000 animals across the three meat packers between 2018 and 2019 according to Aidenvironment. All three companies said they were not currently being supplied by the ranch.
More than 250 cases of deforestation were attributable to indirect suppliers – farms that rear or fatten cattle but send them to other ranches before slaughter. (Some farms act as both direct and indirect suppliers.)
Meat companies have long said that monitoring the movements between ranches in their complex supply chains is too difficult. Critics say this allows for “cattle laundering”, where animals from a “dirty” deforesting ranch are trucked to a supposedly “clean” farm before slaughter, disguising their origin. A clean farm is one with no history of fines or sanctions for deforestation, even if its owner has carried out deforestation on other ranches.
TBIJ and Repórter Brasil worked with Dom Phillips and the Guardian to report on an example of cattle laundering in 2020. Then, the team appeared to show that cows from a farm under sanctions for illegal deforestation had been moved in JBS trucks to a second, “clean” farm. After the story was published, JBS stopped buying from the owner of both farms.
However, our investigation has found that the owner now supplies Marfrig, another of Brazil’s big three meat packers. One of his farms, Estrela do Aripuanã, in Mato Grosso state, is still under sanctions but remains part of the international beef supply chain.
Records appear to show that between 2021 and 2022, nearly 500 animals were moved along the exact route that TBIJ investigated in 2020. The cattle ended up at the same “clean” second farm, Estrela do Sangue, which has no embargos or other environmental sanctions.
Separate documents appear to show dozens of animals moving from Estrela do Sangue farm to Marfrig’s meat plant in Tangará da Serra.
Last year, another TBIJ investigation linked the Tangará da Serra plant to the invasion of the Menku Indigenous territory in Brasnorte.
According to shipping records, the plant has sold more than £1bn worth of beef products since 2014 to China, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.
In a statement, Marfrig confirmed it had received cattle from the owner, saying: “With every transaction it makes, Marfrig checks the status of the cattle-supplying properties. At the time of slaughter, the farm in question was compliant with Marfrig’s socio-environmental criteria, meaning the property was not located in an area with deforestation, embargo, or forced labour, nor in a conservation unit or on Indigenous lands.”
It added: “Marfrig condemns the practice referred to as ‘cattle laundering’ and any other irregularities. All suppliers approved by the company are regularly checked and must comply with the mandatory socio-environmental criteria described in the company’s current policy.”
Minerva said it “tracks the condition of the ranches, ensuring that cattle purchased by Minerva Foods do not originate from properties with illegally deforested areas; possess environmental embargos or are overlapping with Indigenous lands and/or traditional communities and conservation units.”
JBS queried the “buying zones” methodology used in the research, saying it states “the estimate determines the potential maximum purchase zone and not necessarily the effective purchase zone.” It also said that it blocked the São Pedro do Guaporé farm “as soon as any irregularity was identified”. When asked, it did not specify the date.