A recent investigation has revealed that over 800 million trees were felled in the Amazon rainforest within a six-year period to cater to the global demand for Brazilian beef.
This alarming deforestation occurred despite the well-known importance of the forest in combating the climate crisis.
The data-driven investigation exposed a clear connection between cattle farming and vast forest loss in Brazil. Although the beef industry in the country has made commitments to avoid sourcing from farms involved in deforestation, the findings suggest that approximately 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of Amazon land was destroyed near meat plants that export beef worldwide.
The investigation forms part of Forbidden Stories’ Bruno and Dom project, which carries on the work of Bruno Pereira, an expert on Indigenous peoples, and Dom Phillips, a journalist who was tragically killed in the Amazon region last year.
Deforestation in Brazil escalated significantly between 2019 and 2022 under the leadership of then-president Jair Bolsonaro, with cattle ranching being the primary cause. The current administration under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to address the issue and curb further destruction.
To estimate the extent of forest loss, researchers at AidEnvironment consultancy utilised satellite imagery, livestock movement records, and other data to analyse a six-year period between 2017 and 2022. The focus was on thousands of ranches located near more than 20 slaughterhouses owned by Brazil’s major beef operators and exporters: JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva.
To identify the farms most likely to have supplied each slaughterhouse, the researchers examined “buying zones,” which took into account transportation connections and other factors. Interviews with plant representatives were also conducted for verification purposes. These meat plants had broad export reach, supplying countries such as the EU, the UK, and China, which is the largest buyer of Brazilian beef.
The research primarily concentrated on slaughterhouses in Mato Grosso, Pará, and Rondônia, regions associated with significant deforestation linked to ranching. It is worth noting that the overall deforestation figure for farms supplying JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva is likely higher, as these companies operate additional plants in other parts of the Amazon.
All three companies have claimed to adhere to strict compliance procedures, demonstrating transparency and commitment to sustainable goals.
The investigation also revealed that Nestlé and the German meat company Tönnies, which supplied retailers such as Lidl and Aldi, were among the buyers connected to the implicated meat plants. Dozens of wholesale buyers across various EU countries, including those that cater to schools and hospitals, were also identified as buyers.
Nestlé said two of the meatpackers were not currently part of its supply chain, and added: “We may scrutinise business relationships with our suppliers who are unwilling or unable to address gaps in compliance with our standards.”
Tönnies said: “These Brazilian companies process many thousands of animals per year for export,” and claimed it was unclear whether the company was the recipient of products from plants linked to deforestation. Lidl and Aldi said they stopped selling Brazilian beef in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
Nestlé stated that two of the meatpackers were not currently part of its supply chain, and they would review their business relationships with suppliers who fail to comply with their standards. Tönnies argued that it was uncertain whether the company received products from plants associated with deforestation, as the Brazilian companies it works with process a significant number of animals for export. Lidl and Aldi confirmed that they had ceased selling Brazilian beef in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Some of the meat imported to the EU may violate new regulations aimed at combatting deforestation within supply chains. Starting in December 2020, the EU stipulates that products entering the market must not be linked to any deforestation occurring after that date.
Alex Wijeratna, a senior director at the Mighty Earth advocacy organisation, said: “The Amazon is very close to a tipping point. So these types of figures are very alarming because the Amazon can’t afford to be losing this number of trees … this has planetary implications.”
The MEP Delara Burkhardt said the findings reinforced the need for greater legislation globally to tackle deforestation: “The destruction of the Amazon is not only a Brazilian affair. It is also an affair of other parts of the world, like the EU, the UK, or China that import Amazon deforestation. That is why the consumer countries should enact supply chain laws to make sure that the meat they import is produced without inducing deforestation. I hope that the new EU law against imported deforestation will be a blueprint for other major importers like China to follow.”
According to Aidenvironment, a consultancy involved in the investigation, 13 JBS-owned meat plants were associated with ranches where deforestation, felling, or burning had taken place. Marfrig and Minerva had six and three plants, respectively.
Moreover, the study estimated that over 100 cases of forest loss occurred on farms directly supplying these companies since 2017, whenever the entire beef supply chain could be traced. One particular ranch, São Pedro do Guaporé, located in Pontes e Lacerda, Mato Grosso, reportedly saw over 2,000 hectares of forest destroyed between 2018 and 2021. This ranch supplied nearly 500 cattle to JBS, which then processed the beef for export to the UK and other destinations.
The investigation also revealed instances of deforestation linked to indirect suppliers—farms that raise or fatten cattle before sending them to other ranches for slaughter. Some farms acted as both direct and indirect suppliers. The complexity of meat supply chains has often been cited by companies as a challenge for monitoring movement between ranches, providing opportunities for “cattle laundering.” This practice involves transporting animals from deforestation-linked ranches to ostensibly clean farms before slaughter, thereby concealing their origins.
Previous investigations by TBIJ and Repórter Brasil, supported by the Guardian, have exposed cases of cattle laundering. In one such instance, cows from a farm sanctioned for illegal deforestation were transported in JBS trucks to a supposedly clean farm. Following the publication of the story, JBS ceased purchasing from the owner of both farms.
However, the current investigation revealed that the same owner now supplies Marfrig, another major meatpacker in Brazil. One of his farms, Estrela do Aripuanã in Mato Grosso, remains under sanctions but continues to be part of the international beef supply chain.
Shipping records indicate that between 2021 and 2022, nearly 500 animals followed the same route investigated by TBIJ in 2020, ultimately ending up at the supposedly clean second farm, Estrela do Sangue, which has no embargoes or environmental sanctions. Documents also suggest that dozens of animals were subsequently moved from Estrela do Sangue to Marfrig’s meat plant in Tangará da Serra.
In a previous investigation, TBIJ linked the Tangará da Serra plant to the invasion of the Menku Indigenous territory in Brasnorte. Shipping records indicate that the plant has sold over £1 billion worth of beef products since 2014 to various countries, including China, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK.
In a statement, Marfrig confirmed it had received cattle from the owner, saying: “With every transaction it makes, Marfrig checks the status of the cattle-supplying properties. At the time of slaughter, the farm in question was compliant with Marfrig’s socio-environmental criteria, meaning the property was not located in an area with deforestation, embargo, or forced labour, nor in a conservation unit or on Indigenous lands.”
It added: “Marfrig condemns the practice referred to as ‘cattle laundering’ and any other irregularities. All suppliers approved by the company are regularly checked and must comply with the mandatory socio-environmental criteria described in the company’s current policy.”
Minerva said it “tracks the condition of the ranches, ensuring that cattle purchased by Minerva Foods do not originate from properties with illegally deforested areas; possess environmental embargos or are overlapping with Indigenous lands and/or traditional communities and conservation units.”
JBS queried the “buying zones” methodology used in the research, saying it states “the estimate determines the potential maximum purchase zone and not necessarily the effective purchase zone.” It also said that it blocked the São Pedro do Guaporé farm “as soon as any irregularity was identified”. When asked, it did not specify the date.
At Natural World Fund, we are passionate about stopping the decline in our wildlife.
The declines in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their declines towards extinction.
When you help to restore a patch of degraded land through rewilding to forests, meadows, or wetlands, you have a massive impact on the biodiversity at a local level. You give animals a home and food that they otherwise would not have had, and it has a positive snowball effect for the food chain.
We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.
This is why we stand for restoring nature in the UK through responsible rewilding. For us, it is the right thing to do. Let’s do what’s right for nature!
Donate today at https://naturalworldfund.com/ and join in the solution!