Illustration: Samuel Bono for Earthsight

American pie keeps growing for high-risk Amazon slaughterhouses


  • Growing US appetite for Brazilian beef is exposing consumers to ever increasing risks of having their dinner plates contaminated by Amazon deforestation
  • Earthsight’s research shows US businesses are not doing enough to keep deforestation, and the associated carbon footprint, out of their supply chains, and action is needed by US authorities
  • New commitments on forest conservation have been unveiled at COP27 currently underway, but pledges made at COP26 in Glasgow are not being met and the situation in Brazil has only worsened
  • In view of the urgent climate and biodiversity crises, the US Congress must speedily pass legislation to ban imports of commodities and products linked to illegal deforestation abroad

Cattle in farm pasture with smoke from burning after deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Shutterstock

US consumers are more exposed than ever to beef tainted with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Since Earthsight reported last year on the growing US market links to deforestation risk in Brazil, things have got worse. Never have Americans eaten so much Brazilian beef. The problem is that an increasing share of this meat is coming from slaughterhouses located deep in Brazil’s deforestation frontiers. Several of them have been repeatedly implicated in illegal ranching practices and forest loss.

Worryingly, US authorities continue to approve new exporters based in some of the Amazon’s most sensitive regions, further increasing risks for US businesses and consumers. This begs the question of whether American importers are doing enough to mitigate such risks. Past experience tells us this is unlikely, especially in the absence of laws to force them to do so.

During COP26 held in Glasgow in 2021, 145 countries including Brazil pledged to end global deforestation – a major source of climate warming emissions – by 2030. To help deliver this commitment, a new Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership was launched this week at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. Under the initiative the 26 participating countries and the EU vow to “scale up action to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030” and will meet annually to take stock of progress.

However, a recent assessment found that “not a single global indicator is on track” to fulfil the Glasgow pledge. Brazil is part of the problem. Deforestation in the country has risen by 73 per cent under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro1. Forest loss accounts for half of all Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, with Amazon destruction representing over three quarters of this. In 2021 the country registered its highest increase in emissions in nearly two decades, underscoring its deepening deforestation crisis.

Brazil is still absent from the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership but is expected to join under the upcoming presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Despite initial optimism that the initiative may lead to additional funding for forest protection, its true impact remains to be seen.

This analysis lays bare the urgent need for the US Congress to pass legislation banning imports of commodities and goods linked to illegal deforestation abroad. The global climate and biodiversity crises cannot wait while powerful consumer markets dither.

Growing risks for a growing market

Brazilian beef exports to the US are booming. The United States is now one of the largest foreign markets for Brazilian beef, second only to China. Its market share has steadily increased from two per cent in 2018 to eight per cent in the first half of 2022. This rise has been attributed to growing Chinese demand for US meat, droughts in major supplier Australia, and high beef prices in the US. All this has opened up space in the American market for Brazilian meat.

Earthsight analysis of thousands of shipment records2  reveals that more and more of this beef is coming from the Amazon states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso3. Both are among the most heavily deforested states in Brazil in recent years4.

Between 2010 and 2021, annual forest loss in Rondônia nearly tripled, while in Mato Grosso it rose by over 150 per cent5. The two states lost a combined 30,000 km2 of Amazon forest in the period, equivalent to the forest loss registered across all of Colombia, the third largest Amazon country.

Supply chain platform Trase identifies Mato Grosso and Rondônia as the two states with the highest deforestation risk for beef exports from Brazil6. As much as 44 per cent of cattle reared in Mato Grosso’s Amazon biome is potentially linked to illegal deforestation7.

Due to intense deforestation of the Amazon – a biome with high carbon stocks – greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Rondônia and Mato Grosso are four times higher than in the US.

Expand for further details about the carbon emissions of beef:


The high carbon risk behind American consumption of Amazon beef

Agribusiness accounts for about a quarter of Brazil’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but due to its close links to deforestation the sector is in fact responsible for nearly 75 per cent of the country’s emissions.

Unsurprisingly, the most important sources of GHG emissions from Rondônia and Mato Grosso are deforestation and cattle ranching. Emissions linked to forest loss in these states is so high that of Brazil’s 10 highest emitting municipalities, six are in Mato Grosso. When it comes to gross emissions – not counting what’s absorbed from the atmosphere – Rondônia is the highest emitting state in Brazil, with per capita emissions (70 tonnes of CO2 per inhabitant) more than 10 times higher than the global average (6.7 tonnes). Mato Grosso follows closely in second place, with 68 tonnes.

Brazilian emissions rose by over 12 per cent in 2021 compared to the previous year, mostly due to soaring rates of forest loss. Emissions from deforestation alone were higher than those of Japan, and rose by nearly a fifth.

In 2020 Earthsight published The Carbon Lottery, which revealed the high levels of GHG emissions embedded in Brazilian beef exports to Europe8. The study, based on emissions data provided by Instituto Escolhas, showed that Mato Grosso’s beef production could be linked to as much as 1,695kg CO2e per kilo of beef9 – depending on the type of pasture and whether or not emissions from deforestation are factored in.

The average carbon footprint of Mato Grosso’s beef can vary substantially – by up to 84 per cent – depending on whether or not deforestation is taken into account (68kg CO2e/kg beef when deforestation is part of the equation, 11kg CO2e/kg beef when it’s not).

Beef produced in Mato Grosso is exposed to high levels of embedded GHG emissions due to intense forest loss associated with cattle ranching in the state. Mato Grosso has the second highest levels of GHG emissions due to deforestation in Brazil (140.5Mt CO2e in 2020).

According to The Carbon Lottery, European consumption of Brazilian beef may be equivalent to the annual climate footprint of 2.4 million EU citizens – twice the population of Brussels.

American consumers of Brazilian beef are increasingly exposed to similarly concerning levels of embedded emissions due to a rising proportion of their purchases coming from Amazon states with high levels of deforestation.

Despite its small size and modest economy, Rondônia is one of the five highest emitting states in Brazil. It has the country’s fourth largest emissions due to deforestation. Although Rondônia’s emissions were not analysed in The Carbon Lottery, figures provided by Instituto Escolhas to Earthsight show the state’s beef has a carbon footprint (with emissions from deforestation factored in) even higher than that of Mato Grosso (83kg CO2e/kg beef). In a sign of the importance of deforestation for beef carbon footprints, the state’s beef would actually have a negative footprint (-2kg CO2e/kg beef, meaning beef production in the state would actually absorb carbon from the atmosphere) if no deforestation were part of its production cycle.

The situation is not getting better. Throughout 2022 the global press (The Guardian, CNBC, Reuters, BBC) has been reporting the highest deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon in years.

Our analysis of shipment records shows that exports of fresh, chilled or frozen beef10  from Rondônia to the US in the first eight months of 2022 surpassed those for all of 2021, while exports from Mato Grosso increased over three-fold compared to the same period last year. In 2020 the two states accounted for 12 per cent of such exports to the US. This share has risen to 28 per cent in 2022.

Brazil’s three largest meatpackers have slaughterhouses in the two states with rising sales to the US11. Between January and August this year, JBS’s exports from Rondônia rose by over two thirds compared to the same period last year, while Minerva more than doubled its exports from Mato Grosso. Marfrig’s slaughterhouse in Chupinguaia, Rondônia, which was licensed in 2021 to start exporting to the US, is making full use of its new found market.

Over the last year, the US Department of Agriculture has greenlighted two more slaughterhouses in Rondônia and one in Mato Grosso to export beef to the US. Two of them are JBS plants in Diamantino12 (Mato Grosso) and São Miguel do Guaporé (Rondônia). The third facility belongs to meatpacker Frigon and is located in Jaru (Rondônia).

Amazon area cleared for cattle. Shutterstock

Past misdeeds and looming perils

It is not only the context of widespread forest loss in Rondônia and Mato Grosso that should worry US consumers and policymakers. Several of the slaughterhouses gaining an ever-larger share of the American pie have discernible track records of involvement with illegal deforestation.

JBS’s facility in Vilhena, Rondônia’s largest exporter13, was recently linked to ranches operating within the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau indigenous reservation, where over 13,000 hectares of forests have been illegally cleared for pastures. Minerva’s slaughterhouse in Paranatinga14, Mato Grosso’s largest exporter15, has a history of sourcing cattle from a rancher accused of clearing 24,000 hectares of native forests – making his farm the most heavily deforested property in the Amazon – in an area claimed by the Ikpeng indigenous people (JBS and Marfrig are also reported to have sourced cattle from this rancher).

Still in Mato Grosso, JBS’s plant in Confresa16 has more than once17 been exposed for buying cows from ranchers implicated in illegal deforestation and cattle laundering practices.

The meatpacker Frialto has a facility in Matupá18, which is Mato Grosso’s third largest exporter19. The company has been linked to a rancher who had a property embargoed by authorities (thus preventing economic activity on the land) for the illegal deforestation of 2,800 hectares of Amazon forest. In 2020 it was revealed that Frigon, the recently licensed meatpacker in Jaru, had a supplier with areas embargoed since 2014 for illegal deforestation.

Expand for further details about risks to the Cerrado:


Risks to the Cerrado cannot be ignored

Earthsight’s analysis of shipment records reveals significant exports of fresh, chilled or frozen beef from slaughterhouses in deforestation hotspots in the Cerrado, a biodiverse biome that has been intensely cleared for agribusiness expansion.

A Minerva facility in Araguaína (Tocantins) saw its exports increase more than four-fold in January-August 2022 compared to the same period last year. In 2021 it was revealed the facility had bought cattle from a rancher who had farmland embargoed due to illegal deforestation. Araguaína is in a transition zone between Amazon and Cerrado and close to ranches in the Amazon state of Pará. According to INPE data, Tocantins was the state with the highest loss of native vegetation in the 2010-2019 period, losing even more Cerrado cover than either Mato Grosso or Rondônia lost Amazon forest during the period.

In the neighbouring Cerrado state of Goiás, Minerva has a slaughterhouse in Palmeiras de Goiás, which is Brazil’s second largest exporter of fresh, chilled or frozen beef to the US. Repórter Brasil has linked this slaughterhouse to a farm accused of illegally clearing 560 hectares of native Cerrado vegetation, in addition to two other ranches in Mato Grosso with a history of illegal deforestation.

Marfrig has a facility in Mineiros (Goiás) that has been the state’s top exporter in 2022 and among the five largest exporters in Brazil20. Last December Repórter Brasil revealed that Marfrig Mineiros was linked to a ranch accused of illegally clearing over 230 hectares of native Cerrado vegetation. According to INPE data, no state has lost more Cerrado vegetation over the past 20 years than Goiás, with over 47,200 km2 of loss. Tocantins and Mato Grosso come second and third, with losses of 46,200 and 44,400 km2 respectively.

Aside from damning exposés, other signs raise red flags about the dangers associated with slaughterhouses in Rondônia and Mato Grosso.

Frialto has been shown to be the fourth meatpacker in Brazil most exposed to forest fires (only behind JBS, Marfrig and Minerva)21. Its Matupá facility is close to the Xingu, an area of intense illegal deforestation within protected lands.

In 2019 it was announced that Frigon was to be inspected by federal agents for failing to sign an agreement with prosecutors to monitor its supply chains for deforestation and indigenous rights violations (known as a Meat TAC agreement). Frigon’s facility in Jaru is close to several protected areas22, putting the company at high risk of sourcing cattle from illegal ranches.

Research by Imazon has shown JBS, Minerva and Marfrig are exposed to millions of hectares of deforestation risk in the Amazon. Some of the largest Amazon exporters have not signed the Meat TAC, including Marfrig Chupinguaia, Minerva Paranatinga and Frigon.

The Brazilian meatpackers who responded to Earthsight's findings all denied wrongdoing. More details on their responses can be found below.

Expand for further details about the forest footprint of imported beef snacks in the US:


The forest footprint of beef snacks

The US is by far the largest importer of Brazilian canned meat, accounting for 43 per cent of all exports in the January-August 2022 period. JBS dominates this trade, with nearly 90 per cent of market share. While fresh, chilled or frozen beef exports from Amazon states have been on the rise, almost all of the Brazilian processed beef bought by US importers comes from southern states far from the Amazon.

One of JBS’s main exports – accounting for nearly a third of all Brazilian processed beef exports to the US – is the Jack Link’s beef jerky, which it produces in São Paulo state in a joint venture with Wisconsin-based snack producer Jack Link’s, one of the US’s top meat snack brands. Under the agreement, JBS sells semi-processed jerky to Jack Link’s “for further processing, packaging and distribution in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

Although production takes place in São Paulo, the jerky is not free from JBS’s forest footprint. In December last year Mighty Earth alleged Jack Link’s beef jerky was linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon state of Pará. This led retail giant Carrefour to announce it would suspend sales of the product in its Belgian stores.

This case is illustrative of a wider problem with processed beef exported from southern Brazilian states. Analyses of interstate animal trade carried out by Repórter Brasil in 2021 found that “even processed meat purchases from industrial plants located in São Paulo may be contaminated with Amazon deforestation.”

Cattle on a farm in Pará state, Amazon, Brazil. Shutterstock

The urgent need to regulate

Large consumer countries, including the US, have acknowledged the need to address their role in driving deforestation overseas through consumption of commodities such as beef.

In response, they are finally creating legally binding rules to minimise their contribution to global deforestation and related human rights abuses. The UK passed a law in 2021 and is now working on secondary legislation needed for it to come into force. In the European Union, governments and the European Parliament are negotiating tough legislation expected to be passed within the next few months. The US is in danger of falling behind.

The Forest Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade (FOREST) Act was introduced in the House and Senate in October 2021, just before the last climate summit. It aims to ban imports of certain agricultural products, such as beef and soy, that are produced on land illegally deforested – according to local laws – after the enactment of the law.

Crucially, the FOREST Act would impose due care and traceability requirements for importers. This is a key difference from the US Lacey Act, which bans imports of illegal timber, and vital to the law’s potential effectiveness.

Rising beef imports from Brazil have led US cattle rancher associations concerned about unfair competition to voice their support for the proposal.

But a year on, with the Amazon fast disappearing, the draft FOREST Act still awaits the attention of US lawmakers.

While exporting slaughterhouses point to their voluntary environmental commitments, it is clear that these are meaningless without regulatory demands. The US’s increased exposure to beef linked to deforestation risk in Brazil shows once again why the FOREST Act ought to be passed as a matter of urgency. Until it is, the US government’s forest pledges at climate COPs like this one will continue to ring hollow.

Area in the Amazon rainforest cleared for pasture. Shutterstock

Companies’ responses to Earthsight’s requests for comment

In comments sent to Earthsight, Frialto stated that since it signed the Meat TAC in 2013 it has met all its demands. The company highlighted its contribution to the development of protocols to monitor suppliers in the Amazon and its progress in monitoring indirect suppliers23. Read Frialto’s full statement.

Marfrig said its Meat TAC commitments are valid for all its operations in the Amazon and that it has achieved 100 per cent compliance for over nine years. The company highlighted it can now monitor 71 per cent of its indirect suppliers in the Amazon. Marfrig denied wrongdoing in relation to the cases mentioned above and detailed how it “has implemented the most robust monitoring system for direct and indirect suppliers available in Brazil.” Marfrig stated it aims to “ensure that 100% of the company's production chain is sustainable and free of deforestation over the next ten years.” Read Marfrig’s full statement.

Minerva denied links to illegal deforestation and said it has achieved 100 per cent compliance under the Meat TAC since 2013. The company stated it uses the best available technology in traceability to ensure compliance with environmental, labour and land tenure regulations. Minerva also said that early trials of the Visipec tool show 99 per cent compliance with good practice criteria on monitoring indirect suppliers as defined by the Indirect Suppliers Working Group. Read Minerva’s full statement.

JBS denied the irregularities related to JBS Confresa and its beef jerky highlighted here and said cattle purchases in these cases complied with its Responsible Raw Material Procurement Policy. The company stated it is committed to “combating, discouraging and eliminating deforestation in the Amazon and in all the biomes in which it operates.” JBS explained it aims to achieve full indirect supplier monitoring by 2025. The company said it “works to improve industry standards through open dialogue and engagement with all stakeholders.” Read JBS’s full statement.

Frigon acknowledged receipt of Earthsight’s request for comment but did not provide any by the time of publication.

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