More transparency concerning the origin and ecological footprint of food is the key to building more sustainable supply chains. UCLouvain researchers took a closer look at Brazilian beef, whose production is responsible for one-fifth of the planet’s deforestation, some of it illegal.
Why Brazilian beef? Because Brazil is the world's largest beef exporter and the sector has a large ecological footprint. By collecting and combining customs data, animal provenance and export licences from slaughterhouses, as well as data on animal movements in the country, Erasmus Zu Ermgassen and Patrick Meyfroidt of UCLouvain’s Earth and Life Institute were able to provide a clear picture of Brazilian beef supply chains. Their results were published in the prestigious journal PNAS and show that it’s possible to know the food chain from A to Z.
The researchers mapped the flow of cattle from where they’re raised in more than 2,800 municipalities to more than 150 slaughterhouses and more than 152 importing countries. This represents more than 15 million movements of animals or meat. The analyses highlight the following points:
- the Brazilian beef trade is controlled by a handful of companies, three of which – JBS, Minerva and Marfrig – handle approximately three-quarters of exports.
- beef exports go to a few major buyers, the largest of which is China, which buys a third.
- mainland China imports meat from central and southern Brazil, areas with relatively low rates of deforestation, while Hong Kong imports Brazilian beef from all over Brazil, including from the Amazon, where deforestation rates are high. But...
- … exports to mainland China are growing rapidly and are increasingly coming from areas at higher risk of deforestation.
- deforestation hotspots in Brazil are linked to the import of frozen beef by the US and the export of live cattle to Venezuela and the Middle East.
- europe is among the top 10 importers of Brazilian beef.
- only 20% of Brazilian beef is exported, and 87% of deforestation is linked to the domestic market!
Regarding that last point, this is the first time a study has contextualised beef export related to deforestation, revealing the key role of Brazilian retailers and consumers in combatting deforestation.
Beyond the figures the study brings to light, it proves it’s quite possible to have intimate knowledge of where food comes from and where it goes from one end of the planet to the other and to calculate the sustainable risks of food supply chains. The data is available online via trase.earth.
Have a look on Patrick Meyfroidt's bio
Patrick Meyfroidt is passionate about geography and sociology. Through the lens of land use, he studies the interactions between human society and the environment. Watch his video portrait here.
- 2000 : Master’s degree in geography, UCLouvain
- 2001 : Postgraduate studies in human ecology (VUB)
- 2001-2003 : Research Assistant, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, UCLouvain
- 2003 : DEA (MPhil) in sociology, UCLouvain
- 2004-2009 : PhD, Department of Geography, UCLouvain
- 2010-2011 : Postdoc Researcher, TELCIM, UCLouvain
- 2013 : Visiting Researcher, Stockholm Resilience Centre
- 2011-2016 : FNRS Postdoctoral Researcher, Georges Lemaître Earth and Climate Research Centre, UCLouvain,
- 2016- : FNRS Research Associate, Georges Lemaître Earth and Climate Research Centre, UCLouvain
Read also: Tracking soybeans