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JAMES BALL: Our part in an environmental catastrophe

Evidence of deforestation outside Freetown in Sierra Leone. Picture: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The deforestation of the rainforests might seem a remote concern for us. In fact, the causes and the consequences are very close to home. JAMES BALL reports.

The Duchess of Cornwall walks through the Rainforest Research Project centre, on the outskirts of Manaus, in central Brazil. Picture: John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Think of Amazon deforestation and it’s likely you’ll think of logging – some wildcat lumber firm on the other side of the world, endangering one of the world’s most precious resources in the interests of the local timber industry.

The reality is more complex, and the responsibility lies much closer to home than it would initially appear. The vast scale of the deforestation of the Amazon, and the terrible consequences of it, follows a direct trail back to Europe – and to the food on our plates.

The culprit is meat, which is one of the key drivers for chopping down the Amazon, even in protected areas. The need for more land upon which to graze cattle means that there’s far more value to be had in clearing forest than simply trying to use the land for logging. Once it’s logged or cleared, it becomes valuable agricultural land – and the resulting beef often makes its way to Europe.

Fresh light was shed on the way this trade works this week by a joint investigation from the Guardian, Repórter Brasil, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (where, full disclosure, I am employed as global editor). This reporting shows the chain of connections which tie together European shoppers with those benefitting from illegal deforestation.

Journalists visited Lagoa do Triunfo, a remote cattle ranch nestled among the Amazon rainforest, and upon crossing a wooden bridge encountered cows being grazed on land clearly showing recent signs of deforestation – right down to burned tree stumps.

Successive Brazilian governments have tried to enforce protection of the Amazon by imposing ’embargoes’ on land – forbidding the grazing of cattle on land connected to illegal deforestation. The cows witnessed by the reporters were clearly on land covered by an embargo – meaning they were being grazed in violation of the strict laws.

This was not the act of some untraceable or untrackable two-bit small-time farmer, though. The Lagoa do Triunfo ranch is owned by a much larger company, AgroSB, and that ranch in turn supplies a much larger ranch used to fatten the cattle as they are grow older.

In turn, that ranch supplies JBS – a company you’ve almost certainly never heard of, but which is the biggest meat company in the world, and among the very biggest food companies on the planet. JBS sells more than $50 billion of meat across the planet every year, slaughters more than 13 million animals every day, and supplies more than a quarter of all the chicken we eat in the UK.

While JBS has plants in countries across the world, the company was born in Brazil, and exports Brazilian beef across the world. In the UK, you’re most likely to find Brazilian beef in corned beef (most of the fresh beef in UK supermarkets is British or Irish), but it can be found on supermarket shelves across Europe, and in pre-prepared food and foodservice here, too.

JBS is not just some company caught out by a supplier it has no knowledge of: the company behind the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch has been sanctioned time and again for grazing cattle on forbidden land, to the point where JBS announced it had stopped working with them after infractions were found in the past.

And yet, as the records – and the Guardian’s photographs show – AgroSB are still grazing cattle on prohibited land, and JBS are still buying from them. The machine – and Europe’s consumers – still needs feeding, after all.

In response to the investigation, AgroSB told the Guardian that any deforestation had occurred before the company acquired Lagoa do Triunfo in 2008. “AgroSB does not carry out deforestation in order to increase its area, but rather it recovers degraded areas. This brings social and environmental progress for all, because in the same area it is possible to produce more, without deforestation, in respect to the environment,” a spokesman said. He added that just 7% of the farm was embargoed, and that as AgroSB have been successful in appealing against some of the other embargos on their land, the company believes it will also overturn the embargos on Lagoa do Triunfo.

After all, production on such an industrial scale requires land on a similarly grand scale. The rate at which the Amazon is being deforested almost defies the imagination. The rate of Amazon deforestation had been estimated at around 20,000 square kilometres a year, an area almost exactly the size of Wales being lost each year.

The quantity of this tied directly to Brazilian beef production, rather than other sources, is similarly vast: the area loss connected to that industry is 5,800 square kilometres every year, an area the size of Norfolk, the county from which this newspaper is published. One of the world’s most vital resources is being irreversibly depleted, an ecological price tag for the cheap food European consumers demand.

Purely selfishly, some of us may wonder why we should care about forests most of us will never visit – and it’s true many of the immediate consequences of deforestation are local problems. Looking at aerial photos of areas of rainforest as they’re cleared show a clear pattern: first the land appears verdant, after a few years it fades to looking like English farmland, and soon it comes to look like savannah.

The loss of the forest increases the local risks of landslides and soil erosion, and can cause major disruption to local communities. But the impacts go far beyond that. If nothing else, rainforests are among the most promising habitats on the planet for the discovery of new drugs, especially the sorely-needed antibiotics we are likely to need as resistance to existing drugs grows.

The most dangerous long-term consequence, though, is that of deforestation’s dangerous interaction with climate change. The Amazon rainforest is often described by green campaigners as ‘the lungs of the planet’, a cute but ultimately inaccurate idea that suggests the forest somehow cleans the world’s air and releases oxygen – which is not something mature forests do (they’re actually carbon neutral).

What they actually do, though, is lock up a lot of carbon, all of which gets released as the trees die or burn. As Scientific American magazine has noted, the contribution of deforestation to the world’s carbon emissions each year is larger than that of every car and truck on every road across the world – and yet we spend far more time talking about electric cars than we do about preserving the rainforest.

Even worse is the risk of catastrophic chain reactions. Deforestation changes local rainfall patterns, and the local climate – potentially putting other parts of the rainforest at risk, leading some models to predict a ‘die off’ chain reaction, with an accelerating die off of much of the forest. We may soon face the point where we have unthinkingly started something we become entirely unable to stop.

Both the causes and the consequences of Amazon deforestation are closer to home than most of us would have imagined – but the question remains as to what can be done to tackle the problem our appetite for cheap meat has helped to create.

We should not expect the problem to fix itself. While many of the firms we deal with can be pressured by public shame, or by boycotts, companies such as JBS have not been heard of by most consumers, and don’t even sell to them directly in any case.

JBS is also hardly a firm that has shown itself all that vulnerable to public shame – the firm and the brothers who control it have been linked to virtually every major political scandal in Brazil. As part of a plea deal the company’s controlling Batista brothers – the sons of the butcher who founded the firm as a tiny meat company in the 1950s – admitted to having bribed more than 1,800 people in the country, including allegedly paying bribes to three different presidents.

Separately, the company has faced allegations of animal abuse in its US subsidiary and is looking at the prospect of a criminal investigation, alongside other US producers for price fixing. It is also accused of not doing enough in response to allegations of ties to illegal deforestation. Many reasonable people would hesitate before trusting wholly any corporate social responsibility policy set out by a company – and owners – with that track record.

A spokesman told the Guardian: “The facts pointed out do not correspond to the standards and processes adopted by the company”, indicating an independent 2018 audit that showed that “more than 99.9% of JBS’s cattle purchases meet the company’s socio-environmental criteria and the ‘Public Livestock Commitment'” – a deal signed between big cattle companies and Greenpeace in 2009. It was followed in 2011 by an agreement JBS and other meat companies signed with federal prosecutors not to buy cattle directly from embargoed or illegally deforested areas.

The spokesman added: “JBS has a responsible purchase policy for raw materials and does not purchase animals from farms involved in deforestation of native forests, invasion of indigenous reserves or environmental conservation areas, or that are embargoed by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.”

There is little hope to be found that Brazil’s new government will step up to the challenge of ensuring greater protection against deforestation. Last year’s presidential election saw Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist politician, elected to the office of president, on an openly nationalist, sexist and homophobic political platform.

Like his populist compatriots across the world, Bolsonaro has set about dismissing climate change as a threat to the planet, and if anything is actively working to make things worse – oblivious or uncaring to the terrible consequences his actions could have for his country and for the world.

Bolsonaro’s administration has already cancelled a UN climate change forum it was due to host next month, but its other planned measures could have far worse consequences. His ministers have dismissed climate change as a low priority, and he has appointed as agriculture minister someone determined to expand business’s access to the Amazon – and as the Associated Press has reported, deforestation appears to have increased markedly in the early days of Bolsonaro’s tenure. He has even threatened to follow Donald Trump’s example and withdraw from the Paris climate accords, though has not yet followed through with this.

It is clear that Brazil’s government, for so long as it is helmed by Bolsonaro, will only make things worse for the planet, and almost certainly easier for JBS and the ranchers taking advantage of newly deforested lands – this is not a problem we can sit back and hope will fix itself.

If European meat demand has helped create the hugely lucrative market which catalyses this ecological calamity, then at least some power lies with European citizens and consumers to tackle it. While direct consumer boycotts won’t work with JBS, it is possible political pressure on supermarkets and governments might.

European policymakers can decide on the rules for importing Brazilian beef, and raise the audit standards and more required for its import – perhaps even, in extremis and if things didn’t improve, banning it outright. Individual supermarkets and caterers can also make their own decisions – after a previous JBS scandal, for example, Waitrose stopped buying from the company.

We can also decide to eat less meat, or to shift to white meats or sustainable fish away from beef, given that any red meat has a significant impact on climate change, whether it was originated from deforested land or not.

But tackling this issue relies on us gaining a proper understanding of what the food industry has become – something incomprehensibly complex and commoditised, a million miles from any traditional image of a small farm. Food supply chains are industrialised and globalised – and so are the consequences of the destruction they cause. Food is a global industry, and the climate change it causes it a potential global catastrophe.

To tackle the problem, we need to understand it. A first step of that is realising that while in one sense it is true that the Amazon rainforest is 5,500 miles away – and on the other side of the equator – in another very real sense it is right on our doorstep. We can, and must, learn how to be better neighbours.

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