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Nothing to Hide: Action to keep the leather value chain deforestation-free

Campaign groups continue to link beef and, by extension, leather production in Brazil to deforestation in the Amazon and other environmentally sensitive regions of the country. This essay highlights some of the work major players continue to do to make their supply chains deforestation-free.

Agricultural research body Embrapa hails food production progress in Brazil since the 1970s as a big success story, with benefits for the whole of humanity. In the 1970s, international organisations had to send food donations to Brazil to prevent hunger in some parts of the population. Now, the country, which has a population of 210 million, produces enough food to sustain 1.4 billion people per year and is the world’s second-biggest exporter of food, after the US.

According to Embrapa, science, entrepreneurship and the country’s richness in natural resources are the factors that have allowed this transformation to take place. This combination has, for example, helped bring about a 500% increase in cereal production since the 1970s from a 70% increase in land devoted to those crops. Four decades ago, the Brasilia-based organisation has said, production was around one tonne of grain from each hectare of land that farmers sowed. This has now increased to 3.8 tonnes per hectare. It argues that continued progress in food production in Brazil will be a good way to feed the world as the population continues to rise. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been saying for a number of years that, if its estimates that the global population will grow to more than 9 billion people by 2050 are correct, global food production will have to increase by at least 60%1.

Protein requirement

Brazil’s contribution to meeting this target will include production of protein as well as grains, with beef playing a big part. Brazil’s farmers and meat companies sent 29.7 million head of cattle to slaughter in 2020. This represented a decline of 8.5% compared to 2019, but this fall came after three straight years of growth. Increases in cattle farming have caused concern among campaign groups because they link it to illegal deforestation in sensitive regions such as the Amazon biome (a biome is a distinct biological community) and, in the centre of the country, the Cerrado savanna. Sometimes land is illegally cleared by fire to turn it into grazing for cattle. In other cases, farmers grow cereals on the cleared land and the cereals are used to feed livestock.

Trase Insights, an information resource on agricultural commodity supply chains that the Stockholm Environment Institute and campaign group Global Canopy set up together, states: “The expansion of cattle pasture and soy cropland are the main drivers of deforestation.” And it says that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 220% between 2014 and 2019, with more than one million hectares lost in that time2. This affects the leather industry and not just in the eyes of campaign groups. In 2019, VF Corporation said that its brands, including Timberland, would place no further orders for leather from Brazil3 until it received assurance that the leather supplied by tanners there “do not contribute to environmental harm in the country”.

An FAO report called ‘The state of the world’s forests 2020’ says that the rate of deforestation, globally, has decreased over the past three decades, but that between 2015 and 2020, deforestation led to the loss of an estimated 10 million hectares per year in all parts of the world. In total since 1990, it adds, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses4.

Agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation, forest degradation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity, the report says. This agricultural expansion is primarily down to the cultivation of soya and oil palm, and to cattle ranching.

Lowest possible impact

Like their colleagues elsewhere, leather manufacturers in Brazil work hard to have the lowest environmental impact they can. Friboi, the meat division of JBS, sources cattle from most states of Brazil and uses hides from all regions of the country in its leather division, JBS Couros, which is the world’s largest producer of leather. It already has in place a policy of buying directly from no supplier involved in deforestation in the Amazon and will extend this to suppliers of suppliers by 2025. The group aims to achieve overall zero deforestation across its global supply chain by 20355.
Rival beef and leather manufacturing group Marfrig has pledged to have a “deforestation-free production chain” by 2030, investing $100 million. One of its main objectives is to preserve biomes in different regions of Brazil, especially the Amazon biome6. It has launched a plan called Verde+, from the Portuguese word for green. Through this, it will aim to make sure that 100% of its supply chain is sustainable and without connections to deforestation, it states.

Monitoring programme

If a decade and more sounds like a long time, the vast size of Brazil and the remoteness of some of the sites that are at the core of the problem are the explanation. For the last 10 years, JBS has been monitoring all the farmers who supply it with cattle. It uses satellite imagery, geo-referenced maps and data from government entities to do this. Any supplier that fails to stick to its code of practice is banned from supplying cattle to JBS and, 11,000 cattle-supplying farms have been blocked. Its policy on responsible raw material procurement covers more than a million square-kilometres in the Amazon. Its monitoring programme includes daily, online analysis of 60,000 cattle-supplying farms and it wants to use blockchain technology to monitor the suppliers of its suppliers. To this end, it launched a new platform called ‘Transparent Livestock Farming’ in April 2021.

In September 2020, the group formalised these ideas in a programme called Together for the Amazon, describing it as a series of “innovative, long-term initiatives that build on the company’s legacy of conservation and sustainable development in the Amazon biome”7. It intends to work closely with industry leaders, civil society, government authorities and environmental stakeholders to propose “meaningful actions that will strengthen the value chain and help preserve this critical biome”.

Four pillars

Together for the Amazon has four pillars: development of the value chain; forest conservation and restoration; support for local communities; and scientific research and technology development. As part of pillar number two, JBS has said it will share its supplier monitoring technology with livestock producers, smaller-scale farmers, financial institutions and the agribusiness sector.
On launching the programme, it created a new Fund For The Amazon to finance sustainable development projects there. As is the case with Marfrig’s programme, this will involve an investment of nearly $200 million by 2030.

Initiatives in other parts of Brazil that JBS is involved in include Rebanho Araguaia8 that aims to foster sustainable cattle farming in Mato Grosso. So far, 13 farms there have signed up to be part of the initiative and the group and its partners expect others to join them soon. All of the cattle farms involved are committed to increasing productivity in sustainable ways and this will include the recovery of degraded pasture lands, the adoption of crop-livestock integration models and the conservation and restoration of forest areas.

Productivity increase

Traditionally Brazil has had a lower rate of productivity in beef production than the US or the European Union and work has been going on for some time to increase production there, to increase the availability of meat, especially for export markets. The authorities in Brazil want to achieve this while making land available for other activities. A sustainable cattle ranching management firm in Brazil has said the South American country’s entire cattle herd could be accommodated on half of the available pasture land, making it “perfectly possible” for the cattle industry to cause no further deforestation in Amazon regions. The company concerned is Pecuária Sustentável da Amazônia (Pecsa), founded in Alta Floresta in Mato Grosso state in 2015 with the self-assigned mission of transforming cattle ranching in the Amazon into a sustainable business.

A good example of how technology and capacity building can bring improvements is a project called Low Carbon Integrated Livestock Farming, developed by campaign group ICV in partnership with JBS, Embrapa and the International Institute for Sustainability. This, too, focused on the state of Mato Grosso. This area was selected because it has one of the largest cattle herds in the country and is located in the Amazon biome. The initiative began in 2012 and, on some of the farms that took part, the improvement was greater than 100%. Similar initiatives have also taken place in states such as Rôndonia, Pará, Bahia and Mato Grosso do Sul.

Still in Mato Grosso do Sul, a project called Novilho Precoce (‘Early Yearling’) offers another example of improvement. This programme has already been running for more than 20 years, combining quality, fair working conditions, conservation, phytosanitary control and animal welfare. Its aim is to help around 3,000 livestock farmers in Mato Grosso do Sul to produce 400,000 high-quality, early yearlings every year while keeping to all environmental and social requirements9. It aims to produce bulls weighing a minimum of 225 kilos and cows weighing at least 180 kilos.

Stakeholders work together

The best projects have one characteristic in common: they are multi-stakeholder-driven and bring together an extensive array of organisations, including slaughterhouses, producer associations (small, family-run farms and big industrial properties), finance bodies, NGOs and public agencies. The lesson the industry has learned is that a broader support base allows more in-depth knowledge to be applied to the development of the entire sector and ensures that different interests are balanced in the process.

The Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock (GTPS) is a hands-on model that can clearly illustrate that a multi-stakeholder approach can be very effective and bring interesting results in the development of a sustainable livestock industry. Probably the first roundtable on sustainable livestock in the world, it has more than 60 members. The group has not only created a platform for promoting successful case studies related to sustainability, but has also become a meeting point where projects can be discussed and synergies developed. Furthermore, it has attracted international attention and support from international funds for the development of projects. It is currently involved in seven projects in five different Brazilian states, involving 800 producers and 800,000 hectares of land. It describes itself as having “intensified the fight against deforestation since 2018”.

Movement for improvement

The intention of this essay is not to pretend that livestock production and the use of its by-products to make leather have no impact on the environment or that all claims of links to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and poor working conditions are false. Instead, it aims to show that important producers and different stakeholders are aware of the importance of developing the sector in a sustainable way and have been working for years now to achieve this aim. Furthermore, it is clear that the necessary technology and know-how are already in use and have already proved effective. Livestock farming can and must become even more sustainable, and to achieve sustainability on a widespread basis, it has to receive support from governments, financial institutions, international organisations and the market.

Transparency has become a priority for companies and consumers. Tools are available to support decisions, and there are many ways to assess suppliers and verify their compliance with legislation, public commitments and customer requirements. The support of the market is necessary to ensure that companies working towards best practice are recognised and encouraged, while those who fail to meet what is required by the market will fade away and lose their place.

What is not helpful to sustainable development in areas such as the Amazon biome is for campaign groups and companies to call for a boycott of leather from the entire country of Brazil to avoid any kind of association with existing problems. What they must do is demand higher standards and use the available tools (or even help to develop new ones) to ensure that their suppliers are working in keeping with best practice and taking part in a movement for improvement. It is important to engage in a constructive debate and foster initiatives that generate results.



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