May is not even half over, but it has already been a landmark month for environmental news: last week the United Nations' Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued its preliminary global assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, finding that humans in both the developed and developing world are now the biggest driver of biodiversity loss. This comes hot on the heels of the United Kingdom's parliament declaring a "climate emergency," along with increasing pressure applied on the European Union to regulate commodities that cause deforestation.
One major instigator of all these environmental emergencies: cows, lots of them, and meat producers.
A new report, also out in May, shines a spotlight on the U.K. and major European supermarkets that are potentially fueling illegal deforestation by doing business with Brazil's cattle industry—particularly with beef producer JBS. The retail chains continue to stock corned beef sourced from the firm, which has been implicated in serious environmental and human rights abuses, according to U.K. investigative organization Earthsight.
Buy beef from Brazil, and it's difficult not to buy meat linked to JBS. The firm is one of the world's largest food companies, and, as a 2018 Chain Reaction Research report found, one of just three meatpacking companies (JBS, Minerva, and Marfrig) that control around 70 percent of the cattle slaughterhouse capacity in the Brazilian Amazon.
In 2016, JBS was Brazil's leading exporter of beef, according to Forest500. But for the last 10 years, the company has been dogged by serious corruption and deforestation charges, leading for example to the arrest of two of its former chief executive officers Joesley and Wesley Batista—part of a JBS bribery scandal that went all the way to the top, to Brazilian President Michel Temer.
Despite these issues, the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain bought almost 90 percent of JBS's European beef exports in 2018; with the U.K. alone importing 28,550 metric tons (31,500 U.S. tons) of corned beef.
Corned beef supplied by JBS was found on shelves at Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons, and Lidl by Earthsight researchers. Morrisons and Lidl source JBS beef for their own house brands of corned beef, while Sainsbury's and Asda stock Exeter and Princes corned beef, also supplied by JBS.
When Mongabay reached out the retailers, none of them confirmed or denied the allegations in the report. Instead they referred to a statement from the British Retail Consortium that says "The BRC and our members regard any form of labor abuse and illegal deforestation as completely unacceptable. All suppliers are expected to be compliant with local laws and retailers' own high standards. Retailers underpin this with codes of conduct agreed with suppliers, robust auditing, training for staff and collaborative schemes."
Critics question the continued support by these major U.K. retailers of the Brazilian firm. "JBS has proved that it can't be trusted again and again. They made various promises to clean up their act," but haven't, says Earthsight Director Sam Lawson. "What we have understood is that governments need to act. Companies cannot do it themselves."
Cattle and Amazon Deforestation
To talk about deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon—where there are four cows for every one person—is to talk about cattle.
Nearly half of the world's deforestation currently occurs in the "arc of deforestation," located along the southern border of the Amazon rainforest and within the Cerrado savanna biome of Brazil. Most of that deforestation is illegal, with human-induced wild fires used to clear native vegetation for new cattle pastures being the largest driver. A study by the Brazilian non-governmental organization Imazon found that JBS ranked No. 1 among meat-packing firms that buy cattle in the Amazon for exposure to deforestation risk because of the location of the slaughterhouses that were near 1.7 million hectares of embargoed farms, 1.6 million hectares of area deforested from 2010 to 2015, and 1.2 million hectares of forest at risk for deforestation from 2016 to 2018. The same study also found that companies like JBS would benefit most from increased control and regulation.
"Cattle ranching is what replaces most of the forest," says Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia who has researched Amazon deforestation for two decades. "All the cattle that are raised in the Amazon, one way or another, have to go through slaughterhouses to get out [for exportation]. Certainly JBS is the biggest [producer doing business here]—so a lot of the beef winds up there."
According to the Brazilian non-profit research institution Imazon, pastures occupied 65 percent of the area deforested in the Brazilian Amazon in 2013–14. Since 2014, the country's deforestation rates have increased with decade-high levels of forest loss documented in 2018—the same year that Brazil slaughtered nearly 32 million heads of cattle, the highest level since 2014.
In 2017, JBS was fined $8 million by Brazil for buying nearly 50,000 head of cattle from ranches guilty of illegal deforestation in the Amazon. More recently, an investigation by O Eco, a Brazilian environmental news agency and Mongabay co-publishing partner, alleged that JBS sourced cattle from at least four illegal ranches operating within the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve in Rondônia state in December of 2018.
"The cattle procurement operations and the entire monitoring system of suppliers are audited annually and independently," JBS wrote in a comment to Mongabay. According to the firm, the results of their audits reveal that more than 99.9 percent of JBS cattle purchases over the last three years complied with the company's social and environmental criteria.
According to the report, however, this is not the case. The public prosecutor's office in Pará state, which in 2016 commissioned its own audits of large meat producers, found that JBS was one of the worst performing meatpackers in the state during that year.
"This is a company that can't be trusted," Lawson says. "Every time someone calls them out on illegal deforestation, the assumption is that JBS is a trustworthy corporate entity who has accidentally done something wrong and will change. If you look at the bigger picture it shows you the intention is different. The idea that you can trust them is insane."
Analysts say that a bookkeeping loophole built into Brazilian environmental law allows for the easy, large-scale laundering of cattle: Brazilian cattle are often raised initially at ranches that cause major deforestation, with the animals moved later to ranches that have not caused tree loss, and the livestock then sold to slaughterhouses that only need to identify the most recent source of the animals. Thus, deforestation remains hidden.
The Earthsight report also sheds light on the sweeping corruption and bribery scandals that have plagued JBS in recent years.
"As the report points out, JBS has been one key company in funding political campaigns legally and illegally," says Imazon Senior Researcher Paulo Barreto. "They funded campaigns and bribed politicians to benefit from environmental deregulation, tax breaks, and subsidized loans."
In May of 2017, JBS was implicated by the federal Lava Jato investigation, Operation Car Wash, the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil's history. Independent litigators found that company executives had made illegal campaign donations to 1,829 candidates from 28 political parties over a period of more than 10 years. J&F Investimentos, JBS's controlling shareholder, agreed to pay a $3.2 billion fine for JBS's role in the scandal. Under Brazilian law, when members of cartels or other corruption schemes expose other players in the scheme they are awarded a lesser fine, called a leniency fine. The fine paid by J&F Investimentos was the world's largest leniency fine ever levied.
According to a company statement, "JBS reaffirms its continuous commitment on compliance and corporate governance, in a transparent and solid approach, aligned with the pillars and guidelines that guide the day-by-day management of the company. In 2018, the Global Compliance Board celebrated the 99 percent brand of employees and 100 percent of the company's leadership have been capacitated in ethics and governance across the world."
Former president Temer is thought to have received as much as $12 million in bribes from JBS. This year, a Brazilian court accepted criminal charges against Temer presented by a federal public prosecutor in connection with the case.
The corruption charges don't stop there. In 2017, as part of operation Carne Fraca, (Weak Flesh), Brazilian federal agents raided meatpacking plants and accused JBS and other producers of bribing government meat inspectors to ignore food safety regulations, leading to temporary bans on Brazilian meat around the globe. A Guardian investigation, also in 2017, found JBS products sold in Europe could contain meat linked to slave labor on a Brazilian farm, leading some European retailers, such as Waitrose, to pull their store brand corned beef, sourced with JBS, from shelves.
Cattle Agreement in Limbo
Brazilian meat processing corruption cases have proven to be a major stumbling block to the voluntary Zero Deforestation Amazon Cattle Agreement, an historic accord signed in 2009 by the then four largest meatpackers in response to a report by Greenpeace, "Slaughtering the Amazon." That report detailed the link between forest destruction, the expansion of cattle ranching in the Amazon, and meatpacking plants located in Pará state.
The highly critical report led to suits by the Brazilian government against meatpackers like JBS for buying from ranches linked to illegal deforestation. The companies then agreed to Conduct Adjustment Terms (TAC), requiring them to exclude source farms involved in any deforestation, slave labor or invasions of indigenous lands and protected areas.
While some progress has been made, many experts agree that too many loopholes remain.
"The settlement agreements signed by the meatpackers have not been enough to curb deforestation," Baretto says. "The fact that deforestation has increased after companies signed agreements is a clear indicator that they have to improve implementation."
In 2017, Greenpeace suspended its negotiations with JBS in large part due to the revelation of the involvement of the controlling partners of JBS in corruption.
"The [Operation Car Wash] scandal was more highlighted in JBS, but the corruption was through the whole [meat processing] sector," says Adriana Charoux, Amazon campaigner at Greenpeace Brasil who worked on the cattle agreement. "What we have learned is that, if there is not support from the Brazilian government and the sectors that acknowledge zero-deforestation policies and enforce it for the producer, then it won't work. More than ever now the international community has to demand criteria for responsible cattle production."
Import-Export Regulation a Way Forward
Earthsight's investigation is the most recent in a series of reports spotlighting the outsized role that the E.U. plays in contributing to deforestation, especially in tropical countries.
But when Mongabay reached out to Lidl, Asda, Sainsbury's, and others listed in the report, they offered little in the way of solutions. A spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium responded: "While it is recognized that Brazil has significant challenges, the country has led efforts to tackle modern slavery through a mix of laws and enforcement. However, recent legislative developments may be putting that progress at risk and this example demonstrates how vital it is for effective laws and enforcement to protect people and the environment from exploitation. We urge the Brazilian government to take swift action to address this issue throughout the supply chains."
With the recent ascent of rightist President Jair Bolsonaro, and the application of his extreme policies favoring agribusiness at the expense of indigenous groups and the "unproductive Amazon," many scientists, activists, and non-governmental organizations both nationally and internationally are increasing pressure on the E.U. to regulate Brazilian commodities that cause deforestation and are linked to human rights abuses.
"The situation is getting worse [now that] the agribusiness lobby has pressured government to weaken environmental regulation." Says Imazon's Baretto. "They have gotten what they wanted, such as a pardon for illegal deforestation, reduction of protected areas, and extension of the deadline to legalize grabbed public lands."
Many are hoping that the forthcoming E.U. Communication on Stepping Up Action to Halt Deforestation will propose legislation to ensure that E.U. companies and their suppliers are not contributing to deforestation and human rights abuses. But critics, including Sam Lawson, are worried that any resulting law will rely too heavily on voluntary deforestation commitments from corporations.
"When all these zero deforestation things started popping up in 2011, there was a lot of self-congratulating in the forest policy world," Lawson says. "What worried me most [then] was that the high-level people would get the sense that the deforestation problem was being solved [by the companies]. All these [voluntary] zero deforestation policies are distracting from what really needs to happen. There needs to be legislative action."
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.