Tracking cattle deforestation risk in the Amazon and the Cerrado — a breakthrough in transparency

Published in
3 min readSep 17, 2019


While it is widely recognised that cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, can that deforestation be linked to particular buyers or consumer markets?

One of the problems is that cows can change hands several times both before they are sent to slaughter and after they have been killed. Calves may be sold for fattening, pre-slaughter, and meat can be sold on for processing before reaching its destination. Which makes tracking the supply chain complex.

So a Chinese or European buyer seeking to source deforestation-free beef cannot know for sure that their meat was not raised on recently deforested land.

Big business, big risks

Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of beef products, and the beef trade is big business, worth around US$6 billion per year to the Brazilian economy. But the industry has been linked to deforestation, including the recent fires in the Amazon.

Norway’s biggest investors, Storebrand ASA and pension fund KLP have already sent a clear message that they do not want to invest in companies linked to the Amazon fires and deforestation.

Which is why the new beef data published on the Trase site is so important. For the first time, it tracks Brazilian beef exports from the municipality where the cattle were raised, through to 150 importing countries, identifying the companies involved in this trade.

And by tracing the cattle’s movement before it reaches the slaughterhouse, Trase makes it possible to see whether it has come from a municipality where there is a high risk of deforestation — and to link that deforestation risk to buyers along the supply chain.

What the numbers show

The new data on Trase map beef, offal and live cattle exports and finds that between 2015 and 2017, Brazil’s cattle exports were associated with 65,000–75,000 hectares of deforestation per year

51% of this deforestation risk is linked to sourcing of cattle from the Amazon biome, and 47% from the neighbouring Cerrado, a biodiverse savannah region.

Markets, traders and deforestation risk

The data is also striking when it comes to the companies involved. It shows that JBS, the biggest of some 200 exporters of Brazilian beef, controlled some 29% of the market in terms of export volumes in 2017, and that the company’s exports were associated with more than a third of the deforestation risk — some 24,000 ha of deforestation risk — because of the company’s sourcing patterns.

Minerva, the second biggest exporter of beef products from Brazil, was responsible for 15% of exports, and was exposed to a similar proportion of deforestation risk.

Hong Kong is the biggest market for Brazilian beef exports, followed by mainland China — but as significantly more of Hong Kong’s beef imports were sourced from the Amazon, it is exposed to a far higher deforestation risk.

An opportunity for greater scrutiny

With European Union member states about to ratify a trade deal with Mercosur countries that could see an increase in Brazilian beef exports to Europe, the new data on Trase provide an opportunity for governments to better understand the sustainability risks associated with the trade.

European markets buy 12% of Brazilian beef exports — including fresh or frozen beef cuts and processed products such as canned beef — and these imports can be linked to 2,900–3,600 football pitches worth of deforestation risk each year, with much of the trade coming from the Central-West and South East of Brazil.

Given the EU’s commitment to reducing its deforestation footprint, member state governments need to understand how they can improve traceability to ensure that deforestation-linked products do not end up on supermarket shelves in Europe.

A more sustainable beef trade

Because Trase makes it possible to identify where the risk lies in cattle supplier chains, it makes it easier for buyers to understand the sustainability risks and opportunities in their sourcing patterns.

This means increased transparency for the Brazilian beef industry — and greater accountability for the industry’s impacts on the ground.

Find out more about the Brazilian beef industry in our Infobrief here.

Learn more about the methodology behind the data here.