America's Top Brands, Cattle, and Deforestation

September 13, 2016 | 9:48 am
Jorge ba/Wikimedia
Lael Goodman
Former contributor

Along with the rest of the world, I was transfixed by the Olympics last month in Rio. Besides the athletic feats of strength and prowess, I found myself fascinated by drama surrounding the games. I cringed when I heard a commentator give credit for a woman winning a gold medal to her husband and coach, was outraged when comments criticized athletes’ decisions about (not) putting hands over their hearts during national anthems, and was mostly just confused about why an athlete would lie about a robbery.

One other story that particularly caught my fancy was hearing about the hundreds of Olympic athletes who went to McDonald’s in the Olympic village.  Rumor has it that athletes could eat for free there, and they certainly took advantage of the opportunity.

However, hearing about eating fast food beef in South America particularly piqued my interest because I’ve been working on a new report about the ways that beef is connected to tropical deforestation. And I know that when athletes, tourists, or locals visit McDonald’s, Burger King or a number of other American fast food restaurants in South America, there is a distinct possibility that the food they are eating may be linked to tropical deforestation.

Our scorecard

Beef production is the largest driver of tropical deforestation globally, and this destruction is concentrated in South America. In fact, beef production is responsible for more than twice as much deforestation as the other three top drivers—soy, palm oil, and wood products—combined. Cattle in South America are largely raised on pasture, and that pasture is often located on previously forested lands.

South America, and Brazil in particular, exports beef and other cattle products all around the world. Beef produced in South America can be found in pet food, canned beef products, and in American-based fast food restaurants in South America.

We took a look at 13 global fast food, retail, and food manufacturing companies that buy beef from South America. After scrutinizing their written policies, communicating with the companies and asking questions, we found that all 13 companies have a long way to go before they can be confident that none of the beef they are buying is linked to deforestation.

We scored the companies on a variety of different criteria, from how public they are about what they plan to achieve with their beef supply chain to the mechanisms by which they verify their beef sourcing. To the right is a table that outlines their scores.

As you can see, there may be a few silver and bronze medals, but no company yet deserves the gold and most companies don’t even make it near the podium. Nine of the 13 companies, Burger King, ConAgra, Hormel, Jack Link’s, Kroger, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Subway, and Wendy’s, lack any kind of public commitment to deforestation-free beef sourcing. Nestlé has a commitment, but needs to implement it. Three companies, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Mars are making the most progress. Yet their scores still show that there is huge room for improvement.

Improvement needed

In particular, there were two areas where commitments and implementation are hugely lacking. Where companies had deforestation-free commitments and practices, they either were only for the Brazilian Amazon or were only being implemented there. There is no doubt that the Brazilian Amazon is an important biome with huge stores of carbon, an important part of the climate, and lots of special animals.

However, there are other really unique and important ecosystems outside of the Brazilian Amazon that are also undergoing conversion for agriculture. A company that ensures that there beef doesn’t cause deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is far from deforestation-free. What about the huge swathes of the Amazon not located in Brazil? What about the drier forests to the south, such as the Cerrado or the Chaco, with amazing species diversity of their own? It is time for companies to stop only protecting the most iconic forest and start protecting all forests.

One of the other major problems is that beef associated with deforestation can often sneak into the supply chain even if a company reviews its suppliers. A few meatpackers (slaughterhouses) check that the ranches from which they source are not associated with deforestation.

However, as you can see from the graphic at left, there are many cases where cattle is moved from one farm to another, and though the ranch that the meatpacker may be sourcing from may be free from deforestation, there may be cattle that was raised on a previous farm associated with deforestation at that ranch. Until the loopholes in this system are closed by tracking cattle all the way back to where they were born, cattle associated with deforestation are likely to continue to be a part of companies’ supply chains.

To be the best

Both Walmart and McDonald’s are positioning themselves to be the best of the best on beef. But while they certainly have gone further than other companies scored here, they have huge loopholes in their policies and practices. Both companies need to increase the amount of information they make public about their beef sourcing. They need to make sure that systems they use to trace cattle go all the way back to indirect supplying ranches. Walmart in particular needs to have a policy that applies to all beef products, included processed beef. And McDonald’s needs to follow through and commit to a plan for eliminating deforestation from its beef supply chain, rather than simply stating that it plans to.

Because now is the time when the world is tuning in, watching to see what companies are competing to provide the best products and services in the world. They need to know that means not just tasty food or good customer service, but also providing quality assurance that their products are sourced sustainably. To tell companies that they need to step up and do a better job of eliminating deforestation-risk beef in their supply chains, go here. And maybe one day soon we will see a gold medal performance.