Brazil beef scandal highlights dangers of industrial livestock farming

Chinese demand is driving beef production in Brazil but producers have been found selling contaminated meat

The revelation that top Brazilian meat producers bribed food safety inspectors to obtain certificates for rotten meat is the last thing President Michel Temer needs on his plate.

Brazil’s economy is already reeling from the crash in global commodity prices and low investor confidence as the unprecedented Lava Jato corruption scandal taints politicians of all stripes. Now the country’s highly prized beef exports look set to collapse after it emerged companies including JBS and BRF, the world’s largest beef and poultry producers, respectively, committed foul play. Some even tried to pass off meat as edible by flecking it with acid in order to mask its rotting stench.  

Major buyers the EU, Korea and China have suspended Brazilian beef imports in the wake of the scandal, the result of an undercover sting called “Operation Weak Flesh”. China is the top destination for Brazilian beef, accounting for a third of all exports. The ban comes scarcely two years after the countries re-established the US$12 billion trade in 2015 following a previous food safety scare.

Blairo Maggi, Brazil’s agriculture minister is fighting to save the reputation of the sector, which despite links with deforestation and comparatively low job creation, enjoys something of a high standing among most Brazilians: “The investigation doesn’t cast doubt over the quality of Brazilian meat, nor the quality of its sanitary system,”
said Maggi, adding that it only raised questions about the character of some working in the industry. The minister, himself controller of Brazil’s largest soybean producer Amaggi, added that officials had identified and recalled containers carrying affected meat.

At the same press conference, Maggi announced the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA) had been alerted to a further 14 slaughterhouses that bought 58,000 heads of cattle reared on illegally deforested land. Such purchases are prohibited under Brazilian law.

Maggi claimed the seizure demonstrates that their policies of controlling “illegal” Amazonian deforestation are effective and that Brazil, which he said uses 8% of land for agriculture, is a champion of sustainability. Yet growing global meat consumption and the move towards more intensive farming methods also impacts the environment, a problem many of those profiting from the sector are trying to suppress.

Cattle footprint

Livestock production accounts for the majority of agricultural land use around the world and contributes around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In Brazil, it is estimated cattle ranching is responsible for half the country’s GHG emissions. Some 80% of deforestation was associated with demand for animal pasture between 1990-2005, according to a report by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) published last year.

On top of this, meat and dairy production uses around 8% of the total water that humans use. Most goes towards the cultivation of feed crops such as soya. So says a recent publication by the Global Forest Coalition entitled What’s at Steak.

Driven largely by demand for livestock from China’s growing middle class, consumption is expected to increase 70% by 2050. This spike in demand is accompanied by a trend towards more intensive farming methods. Millions of animals are now raised in cramped spaces known as Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs), often in unsanitary conditions. CAFOs are also highly polluting.

“We have to return to traditional farming methods, restricting it to “natural” environments and allowing [cattle] to feed on pastures and grasslands that can support them trampling on it,” said Miguel Lovera of the Global Forest Coalition. Along with the environmental footprint of intensive farming, competition among producers is ‘tremendous’ Lovera says.

With consumers and producers separated by long distances, it is easier for the latter to take advantage of loopholes in regulations, or break the rules in search of higher profits, according to Wanqing Zhou, an associate at environment think tank Brighter Green.

“Exporting meat to the other side of the world is a challenge,” says Zhou. “Meat products, with their perishable nature, require being consumed quickly when they are still fresh, or being preserved through preservatives or freezing, both of which entail costs.”

Lovera says that rather than solve the problem of refrigerating products along the supply chain, producers try to cover it up in order to protect their market share.   

The Brazil meat scandal hasn’t received much attention from big Chinese media outlets but smaller organisations and groups that are focused on healthy living and which operate on social media platforms such as WeChat have acknowledged it.

According to Zhou, the most effective way to curb the environmental impacts of meat consumption is to significantly reduce demand: “It’s hoped that some [consumers] will take it a step further and rethink the over-consumption of meat and the safety risks in the intensive animal farming system.”

No debate

The “weak flesh” scandal may have prompted safety concerns in China and in Brazil, but there is minimal space for public debate about the climate impacts of the beef trade in South America’s largest country. One of the reasons for this is the lack of critical coverage in national media, says Myanna Lahsen, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE).

“They maintain a virtual taboo on the topic,” says Lahsen, who adds that climate change is framed as an energy problem in Brazil.

Brazil’s powerful agriculture industry, which is represented in the national parliament by the sizeable “ruralista” lobby group, presents itself as vital for food security. Coupled with the high cultural value the public attaches to meat, environmental NGOs and scientists are reluctant to tackle the topic. At best, they express support for more efficient and intensified production, arguing that it should be limited to already degraded land.

These analyses fail to grasp that a key driver behind the deforestation process is financial speculation on land and its assumption that the ecosystems they support have no value, Lahsen says. Land increases in sale value if it is deforested and prepared for production, speculators assume.

However, for every one dollar in private profit generated by the agriculture sector, the pubic is hit with 20 in costs arising from pollution and land degradation, according to a report by research organisation TRUCOST.

Yet still the Brazilian media focuses mainly on agribusiness’ 25% contribution to GDP and presents those who criticise it as against the national interest. This is despite the relatively few jobs it creates given the territorial extension it requires, Lahsen argues.  

“There is no public debate about whether the negative impacts are necessary, who exactly benefits from the meat and soy emphasis, and alternative development options that are sustainable and more equitable,” Lahsen says.

This article is republished from Diálogo Chino