You can read the executive summary of this report below, or download the pdf to see the full version with footnotes.
High stakes: how industrial meat is taking us to the tipping point
The global system of industrial agriculture fuels the climate emergency and destroys biodiversity. It erodes public health and denies the human rights of workers and communities.
The industrial meat economy – including the production of animal feed as well as the rearing and processing of livestock – is particularly to blame. By 2030, the livestock sector is expected to have spewed out almost half (49%) of the total quantity of greenhouse gases that human activity worldwide can emit from now on if global warming is to be restricted to the ambitious 1.5ºC target recognised as the safe maximum by the Paris Agreement.
The unrelenting expansion of commodity production into the forests of South America – notably of cattle and soya linked to the global meat industry – is a key driver of the climate, nature and health crises we are facing. Forest destruction is not only wiping out habitats and species but increasing the risk of reaching a catastrophic climate tipping point: scientists warn that by failing to reverse deforestation we are ‘playing an environmental Russian roulette’. In the Amazon such a tipping point may be reached in less than 20 years, permanently changing regional weather patterns, turning the surviving rainforest into dry savannah and releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
The global meat industry is also gambling with our health: an ever-increasing number of scientific reports confirm a connection between emerging infectious diseases and environmental destruction, pointing to its potential to let loose a huge reservoir of pathogens. The majority of emerging infectious diseases originated in animals – primarily wild species – and our continuing destruction of ecosystems and habitats is increasing our exposure to these diseases and encouraging their spread.
Brazil is one of the world’s largest producers of beef and soya. But the country’s agribusiness agenda – which serves the global meat industry – exacts a heavy toll of human misery. Indigenous and other Amazon communities have long borne the brunt as their lands are expropriated and the forest cleared for agriculture. Even as deforestation goes on increasing, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro appears to see the current chaos of the global pandemic as an opportunity to further strip away these communities’ rights and such protection as the forest has. Moreover, Amazon communities – who are particularly at risk from Covid-19 due to their culture of community living and limited access to health care – are at risk of being made yet more vulnerable to the disease by exposure to smoke from the fires that ranchers set on a massive scale to clear newly felled forest.
Others who suffer at the hands of the country’s agribusiness model include the forced labourers on cattle ranches and the migrant and temporary workers who live in cramped communal housing and work in crowded conditions in meat processing facilities. Indeed, the outbreaks of Covid-19 at meat processing plants around the world have made the meat industry a global health liability, with one industry expert stating that workers are treated as being ‘as expendable as the things they’re slaughtering’.
But this is not just about Brazilian beef. Industrial meat production swallows up the overwhelming majority of the vast amounts of soya exported from South America each year, whose production is a leading driver of ecosystem conversion. A report published in Science in July 2020 revealed that about one-fifth of soya exports to the EU from the Brazilian Amazon and the Cerrado biome were likely contaminated with illegal deforestation.
The global meat industry not only fuels the destruction of the Amazon and other natural ecosystems with its demand for feed and grazing, but – as this report outlines – pollutes our air and water, threatens public health through its reckless overuse of antibiotics, exploits and endangers its workforce (particularly those in meat processing plants) and drives small farmers out of business, undermining rural communities. Moreover, the meat-heavy diets that the sector promotes and on which it depends for its existence also imperil health, being associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Even those that lack direct links with cattle supplies from the Amazon may be trading with corporate groups who are directly linked. The sheer demand for industrial meat and the feed used to rear the animals drives the sector’s environmental and social impacts. It is therefore critical that importing countries use their trade might and purchasing power in the public interest. The global meat industry is not only sacrificing people’s lives today, but also sacrificing our future.
Taking stock: JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, is still slaughtering the Amazon
Globally, JBS is the biggest cog in the destructive industrial meat sector. So big is it that its operations have been estimated to produce around half the annual carbon emissions of fossil fuel giants such as ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.
The scale of JBS’s environmental and social destruction became a global scandal in 2009, when Greenpeace International published Slaughtering the Amazon. The investigation that report laid out exposed how the biggest names in the Brazilian cattle industry – including JBS, then accounting for 10% of global beef production – were linked to hundreds of ranches operating in the Amazon, including some associated with recent and illegal deforestation and modern-day slavery. The report revealed how ‘criminal or “dirty” supplies of cattle are “laundered” through the supply chain to an unwitting global market.’ In the months following its publication, JBS and the three other major processors in the Brazilian cattle sector signed the G4 Cattle Agreement, an undertaking to end the purchase of cattle whose production is linked to Amazon deforestation, slave labour or the illegal occupation of Indigenous lands based on the demands made in the report. The agreement included a commitment to ensure fully transparent monitoring, verification and reporting of the companies’ entire supply chains (including indirect suppliers) within two years.
Eleven years on, JBS is still slaughtering the Amazon. It and its network of subsidiaries have been repeatedly linked to suppliers found to be engaging in illegal deforestation in the region and operating illegally on protected Indigenous lands. Its suppliers have also been implicated in modern-day slavery and its slaughterhouses linked to unacceptable working conditions, mass outbreaks of Covid-19 and salmonella-tainted chicken exports. JBS and members of the Batista family – the company’s principal shareholders (via holding company J&F Investimentos) and senior executives – are notorious for their historic systematic bribing of Brazilian politicians and public servants.
Despite its public claims of openness – and its decade-old commitment through the G4 Cattle Agreement – JBS is backsliding on transparency measures for its cattle supply chains. Moreover, a recent investigation reports that JBS is not merely turning a blind eye to its suppliers’ violations but has been directly implicated in transporting deforestation-linked cattle to one of its own direct suppliers.
It is clear that JBS’s business model is incompatible with the environmental emergency we are facing. According to Trase data, as of 2017 (the most recent year for which data are readily available), approximately 30% of its beef exports from Brazil came from the Amazon. Yet despite JBS’s ongoing failure to map out its supply chain with all the risks that entails, and continued reports of its links to deforestation and human rights abuses, the company’s global exports from Brazil are booming – JBS saw an increase in trade volume from Brazil of 40% between 2017 and 2019 and was responsible for around a third of Brazil’s beef exports in 2019.
Supporting destruction: supermarkets and fast food companies are bankrolling environmental collapse
In spite of the multiple harms for which it is responsible worldwide, the industrial meat sector is propped up by supermarkets and fast food companies. Though they have long-standing commitments to remove deforestation from their supply chains, Western food retailers are still buying meat reared on South American soya. In fact, soya has been identified as the number one contributor to the EU’s deforestation footprint and is a leading component in the UK’s land-use footprint linked to meat production and consumption.
Furthermore, most of the major UK supermarket chains and many fast food companies source UK-produced meat from JBS’s UK subsidiaries Moy Park and Tulip, which have about 30% of the UK market share for chicken and pork respectively. Moy Park reportedly also supplies Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, Nando’s and Pizza Hut, while Tulip received a supplier award from McDonald’s in 2017.
Moy Park itself has been fined for a range of infractions, including animal cruelty, underpayment of staff and unsafe processing plant working conditions. Whether or not these companies have any supply chain links to Amazon beef or soya, Moy Park and Tulip are owned by JBS, whose continued trade with suppliers linked to deforestation and human rights abuses is jeopardising the Amazon.
The globalised industrial meat economy is beyond reform – most of its environmental and social impacts are intrinsic to the way it operates and is organised. Thus, it is futile to hope that simply switching to a better industrial supplier will help the problem to go away. That is why Greenpeace International is calling on supermarkets and fast food chains to join with government and civil society in a concerted effort to move our society beyond its dependence on industrial meat and towards a revolution in food production and diet that will improve individual health outcomes while securing the future of the planet – its climate, its wildlife and its people.
Such fundamental change will not happen overnight, but food companies can take a step in the right direction by showing suppliers they will not support such destructive practices – starting by dropping all suppliers owned by JBS, the largest meat company in the world, which is still slaughtering the Amazon. Beyond that, the transition to a resilient food economy in a high-consumption country such as the UK must aim at rapid reductions in per capita meat and dairy intake.
Taking the bull by the horns: time for urgent action to transform the global food economy
‘All economic partners of Brazil should share the blame for indirectly promoting deforestation and GHG emissions by not barring imports and consuming agricultural products contaminated with deforestation, illegal or not.’
Raoni Rajão et al, Science July 2020
Rapid and systemic transformation of the industrial meat economy will be critical to addressing the triple emergency of climate change, biodiversity loss and vulnerability to novel diseases. Governments and the private sector alike need to recognise their role in creating these crises and assume their responsibility for tackling them. Radical action is needed from supermarkets, fast food companies and governments to ensure that policy, trade and finance drive – rather than undermine – the urgently needed shift to resilient food economies that permit the restoration and regeneration of natural ecosystems, ensure the preservation of biodiversity, rein in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and uphold the rights of communities and workers.
- Align the economy with biodiversity and climate protection, along with social justice: Ensure that public finance, trade policy and overseas cooperation do not drive further deforestation, but do support nature restoration and a transition to a green, just and resilient economy. This includes:
- Closing the market to products linked to deforestation, ecosystem destruction and abuses of human rights, in particular the rights of Indigenous Peoples, by introducing and enforcing legislation to stop such products being sold and to prohibit financiers from contributing directly or indirectly, through their investments or the financial support they provide, to deforestation, ecosystem destruction and/or abuses of human rights, in particular of Indigenous Peoples.
- In the case of EU governments, refusing to ratify the EU-Mercosur agreement. The agreement threatens to undermine any attempt to protect forests through new supply chain laws and also undermines attempts to decrease Europe’s external forest footprint through positive initiatives to decrease meat production and consumption.
- Transform the food system: Introduce legislation and prioritise policy to decrease production and consumption of meat and dairy products in countries with high levels of consumption and support a fundamental switch towards ecological farming and healthy plant-rich diets.
Food companies must:
- Drop Amazon destroyers: End trade with groups such as JBS that trade with suppliers that are linked to deforestation and human rights violations – this includes ending trade with subsidiaries such as JBS-owned Moy Park and Tulip regardless of whether their supply chains link to the Amazon.
- Drastically reduce their trade in meat: Immediately begin the phase-out of all trade in industrial meat, with the aim of reducing overall meat and dairy production and sales by at least 50% by 2025 and 70% by 2030 in countries with high levels of meat consumption.
- Defend Indigenous rights: Support Indigenous Peoples in securing recognition and protection of their lands and customary rights.
- Stand for transparency: Honour zero-deforestation commitments and make full supply chain transparency a condition of trade with suppliers, requiring them to have open and comprehensive monitoring systems in place by no later than 1 January 2021.