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Beef is bad for the planet. Can we make it better?

Brazilians on the edge of the Amazon rainforest are working with cattle ranchers — not against them — to save the climate.

Cows graze on cleared land in Brazil.
In Brazil, ranchers have long engaged in slashing and burning of the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle.
Westend61/Getty Images

On the edge of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, there’s a small city called Alta Floresta. It was settled four decades ago when people came in to ranch cattle. They cut down big tracts of the rainforest and set fire to the trees in an environmentally destructive process known as slashing and burning.

This land would quickly degrade, forcing ranchers to slash and burn more land. And the cattle they brought in compounded the environmental problems by farting and burping out methane — a greenhouse gas that’s especially bad for our planet.

It’s a tragedy that’s played out along huge tracts of the Amazon. In Brazil alone, 450,000 square kilometers of rainforest have been cleared for beef. Given how important the rainforest is for the Earth’s health — it’s sometimes known as “the lungs of the planet” — this phenomenon is a dangerous driver of climate change.

Vando Telles grew up in Alta Floresta. His father is a cattle rancher. So are many of his neighbors. And he watched them go through economic difficulties as their land degraded. So he decided to look for alternatives.

He went to university to study agriculture, and he learned a range of sustainable ranching techniques that he believed could turn things around for the ranchers back at home. He realized that he could help the environment by working with the ranchers, not against them, and that this would help the ranchers, too. It’s a win-win.

On this episode of the Future Perfect podcast, we talk to Vando Telles about his uphill battle to bring those alternatives to his community. And we speak with Christina Selby, a freelance reporter who traveled to Brazil to write about Vando Telles’s company, Pecsa, which has had some dramatic success: It has brought down greenhouse gas emissions on its ranches by a whopping 85 percent.

Together, Telles and Selby help us understand how Pecsa’s success might be scaled to other places, and what that might mean for the environment.

Further reading:

This podcast is made possible thanks to support from Animal Charity Evaluators. They research and promote the most effective ways to help animals.

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