Climate and Nature

How tracing cattle in Brazil can prevent deforestation in the Amazon

Cattle ranching in Brazil is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and CO2 emissions in the country.

Cattle ranching in Brazil is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and CO2 emissions in the country. Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Marcello Brito
Executive Secretary, Interstate Amazon Consortium
Jack Hurd
Executive Director, Tropical Forest Alliance, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Cattle ranching in Brazil is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and CO2 emissions in the country.
  • But a new mandatory traceability programme for cattle in the state of Pará could provide a model for nature-positive food production in other states in Brazil and beyond.
  • More governments need to follow Pará’s lead and implement innovative programmes and provide financial incentives for nature-based solutions to food production.

Cattle ranching in Brazil historically accounts for 24% of global annual tropical deforestation and plays an outsized role in global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pará Cattle Integrity and Development Program, announced at COP28, is a foundational layer for addressing one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and CO2 emissions in the country and marks a huge milestone in the fight against commodity-driven deforestation.

About 40% of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 2001 has occurred in the state of Pará – with cattle ranching being by far the biggest driver of forest clearance. Under the programme, all cattle from 295,000 farms will be tagged – across an area larger than France, Spain and Norway combined. The tagging means that state officials will be able to overlay environmental property data with information on the movement of individual cattle.

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Traceability is the ability to follow the movement of food products through all steps in the supply chain, from farm to fork. Unlike plants, animals move, and in Brazil, as in many cattle-producing countries, most cattle pass through several ranches from the time they are born until they reach the slaughterhouse. Individual tagging will help track of cattle as they move through all the ranches they pass through during their lifespan.

The size of the prize is massive: the mandatory traceability programme for cattle in the state will help producers in the state of Pará move into legal production; it moves the state (and Brazil) towards a food system that values natural assets; and it creates more transparency that will help to impede catastrophic loss of the Amazon and keep the world on a path to under 1.5°C. In simple terms, implementing a programme like this will prevent millions of hectares of deforestation and emissions from the Amazon.

Traceability systems underpin supply chain integrity and, in turn, help to build confidence and drive investment in the agricultural sector, but alone they are not enough. That’s why it’s positive to see that the scope of this programme goes further, setting out ambitious and measurable goals for producer compliance, market inclusion, increased productivity and improved pastures, in addition to compulsory individual traceability (where regulation mandates that each individual animal can be traced from birth through all the ranches they pass through during their lifespan) by 2026.

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With support from a range of stakeholders including the Nature Conservancy, the Bezos Earth Fund and the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association (ABIEC), the programme sets the precedent for a model that can be replicated across Brazil.

Multistakeholder collaboration of this scale is needed to achieve the net-zero transition of the cattle sector across Brazil, not only in the Amazon region but also in the Cerrado. The most biodiverse savanna in the world, the Cerrado is also one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses accounting for almost 60% of Brazil’s agricultural production, including a cattle herd larger than the Amazon’s.

The announcement of the programme by Helder Barbalho, Governor of the Amazonian State of Pará, builds on progress made by Brazil this year and response to it has been enthusiastic. Early impact funding to overcome the initial resource constraints for rapid deployment and scaling of the programme across the entire jurisdiction, makes its launch a decisive milestone in realigning food systems in Brazil.

Food systems that work with nature not against it

Commodity-driven deforestation is a leading cause of nature destruction. Without nature, the ecosystems we depend on for food and livelihoods will collapse – causing widespread economic, environmental and socio-cultural damage.

We’re at a critical turning point and urgently need to reinvent current agricultural models before it’s too late. With all eyes on Brazil as it assumes the presidency of the G20 and on the Amazon in the run up to COP30 in Belem, the region is well-placed to lead this transformation and demonstrate how, as Barbalho said in his announcement “it is possible to produce [food] while preserving the environment.”

Historic data on the impact of cattle ranching on deforestation
Historic data on the impact of cattle ranching on deforestation Image: Our World in Data

This couldn’t be more true and it’s great to hear leaders recognize – and vocalize – the potential for regenerative food systems that give back to nature, rather than take from it.

These new food systems should focus on intensifying agricultural production – increasing yields per hectare – in a way that’s sustainable and enhances soil health, preserves water and prevents contaminated water from filling lakes and streams.

They should be complemented by innovative methods like agroforestry, which incorporates shrubs and trees into farmland, helping to simultaneously boost production and protect biodiversity.

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The need for cross-sector action

No single actor can drive this change; to create nature-positive production, we will need to see stakeholders from supply chains working together across sectors and borders.

Agribusiness has a vital role to play and we need to see companies making more cross-sector commitments against deforestation and ecosystem conversion. Initiatives like the Agriculture Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C, which brought together 14 of the world’s biggest cattle, soy and palm oil traders to make sectoral commitments on deforestation, are a good example of the type of action of which we need to see more.

Signatories have also set out individual corporate commitments during COP28, the implementation of which will underpin sector-wide progress.

In addition to corporate commitments, we need more governments to follow Pará’s lead and implement innovative programmes and provide financial incentives for nature-based solutions. This should include, in particular, compensation for landowners who haven’t cleared land but are legally entitled to do so to make up for money lost.

Public and private-sector action must be supported by traditional and innovative finance packages to help lower costs for businesses and smallholders in favour of production that is nature and climate-positive, as well as limiting access to capital for companies that are not trying to become more sustainable.

Initiatives like the TNC/TFA Innovative Finance for the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco (IFACC) programme – which aims to scale-up deforestation-free finance mechanisms in commodity supply chains – will also be critical in mobilizing capital to farms and initiatives on the ground, ensuring that producers have the financial support they need and don’t bear the monetary burden of this transition.

It’s positive to see that the Pará Cattle Integrity and Development Program is the outcome of consultations with a range of institutions, representing government, producers, industry associations and civil society – and, if they can get this right in Pará, this has the potential to influence other cattle producing states in Brazil.

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