On paper, the Brazilian Amazon is one of the most protected ecosystems on the planet. There are thousands of protected areas, in addition to rules that safeguard forests on private lands.
More importantly, big meatpacking companies that buy cattle — the largest driver of deforestation, by far, in the Amazon — committed more than a decade ago to only buy cattle from land without forest loss. This commitment was supposed to prevent any additional losses.
Yet year after year, satellites that monitor changes in forest cover find the same thing: The Amazon is shrinking. Between August 1, 2018, and July 31, 2021, more than 34,000 square km (8.4 million acres) disappeared from the Brazilian Amazon. That’s an area larger than the entire nation of Belgium, and a 52 percent increase compared to the previous three years.
It doesn’t add up. Assuming satellites don’t lie, someone is hiding deforestation.
Over the last decade, scientists and environmental advocates have begun to uncover those missing hectares, and their research points to a concerning practice in the beef industry: “cattle laundering.”
In a cattle laundering scheme, ranchers move cattle from “dirty” ranches, which contribute to deforestation, to ranches that are “clean,” with no recent forest loss. By the time those cattle arrive at slaughterhouses, the path they’ve taken is obscured, as is the damage they’ve caused.
This deforestation is often invisible to meat companies, but increasingly, researchers can see it. Just this week, a new study found that millions of cattle purchased by slaughterhouses were at least partially raised in protected areas in the Amazon — arguably, some of the most important natural regions on Earth, many of which are home to Indigenous communities.
What’s astonishing is that much of this laundering is happening out in the open; investigations largely rely on public records in Brazil, and their findings have circulated for years. Meat from laundered cows is almost certainly now sold around the world. And like that, the Amazon continues to fall.
But there is a way to clean up the industry, to salvage the remaining Amazon forest. It starts with understanding the journey of a cow.
Beef is eating up the Amazon
All sorts of products we rely on have helped erode tropical forests, such as oil palm and timber. But the main cause of global deforestation is, without question, cattle ranching. This is especially true in Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of beef. As much as 90 percent of all forest that’s been cleared in the Brazilian Amazon is now covered in pasture, most of which is for cattle.
There’s nothing inherent about the Amazon that makes it a good place to raise cows, though it’s an easy way to make money, said Amintas Brandão Jr., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Often, farmers or companies will first cut down high-value trees and sell them as timber and then clear the remaining vegetation with fire. Then, they bring cattle in and sell the property, or raise the cows for slaughter.
This pathway of deforestation has existed for decades, but in 2009, Greenpeace published a blockbuster investigation exposing how ranching was eating up the Amazon. It seemed like a turning point. Following the exposé, some of the world’s largest meatpacking companies including JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva signed legally binding agreements with authorities — and a separate voluntary agreement with Greenpeace — that prohibited them from buying cattle in land with recent deforestation.
On the surface, those agreements appear to be working: Most major meatpackers and slaughterhouses — which influence the entire beef supply chain — screen the cattle they buy for deforestation. Ranchers that sell to them, known as direct suppliers, provide the location of their farms. And the meatpacking companies hire consultants to check those locations for any recent forest loss, using data collected by satellites.
But this screening process misses a lot — perhaps even the majority of deforestation in the beef supply chain — undermining the integrity of their zero-deforestation pledges.
How to launder a cow
So, according to decade-old agreements, major meatpackers in Brazil can only buy clean cattle: cows that come from land without any recent deforestation. The problem is, there are several ways to make cattle look clean, even when they’re not.
The most common way is pretty simple and takes advantage of the complex beef supply chain. A single cow could travel through as many as 10 farms before it’s ultimately killed; it might be born on one, reared on another, and fattened on a third, all before reaching a slaughterhouse.
Deforestation could happen in any of those steps, yet slaughterhouses only tend to assess their direct suppliers, the last stop on the cow’s journey. That means ranchers can illegally cut down a swath of Amazon forest to raise cattle and, as long as those animals are transferred to a farm without deforestation before slaughter, they’ll appear clean and the meatpackers will appear to be honoring their commitments.
Some cattle owners go to greater lengths to launder their animals. Investigations have found that some farmers appear to have edited the boundaries of their ranch — which are recorded in a government database — so that they appear free of any destruction.
“Those are the boundaries they will send to the slaughterhouse,” said Chris Moye, a forest investigator at Global Witness. And because the slaughterhouse or meatpacker won’t see any forest loss in the farm, he said, they’ll buy the animals.
Laundered cattle have cleared large chunks of Amazon forest — even in protected areas
This isn’t just about a few dirty cows in what is otherwise a clean supply chain. Cattle laundering is pervasive, and it helps explain why corporate pledges have done so little to protect the Amazon rainforest.
One recent report found that in just one state in the Brazilian Amazon, more than 90,000 head of cattle were raised on land acquired illegally, or “grabbed,” between 2018 and 2021. Land grabbing often results in deforestation.
Importantly, the report revealed, most of those cattle were then sent to legal farms before they made it to slaughterhouses, suggesting that they may have been laundered, according to the investigation, which was published by the investigative reporting agency OCCRP and the Brazilian magazine Piauí, with data analysis provided by the Center for Climate Crime Analysis.
At least some of those slaughterhouses were owned by JBS and Marfrig, two of the world’s largest meat companies, according to the investigation. Both companies, which took in billions of dollars in revenue last year, have committed to only sourcing clean cattle. JBS and Marfrig both said in a statement to Vox that they have zero tolerance for illegal deforestation and immediately stop sourcing from any farms that violate their policies. (JBS provided Vox with a more in-depth response to the OCCRP investigation, which you can find here.)
For the OCCRP report, investigators relied on public data showing the movement of cattle between ranches. Farmers in Brazil are required to record the location of their properties and the movement of cattle, albeit in separate government databases. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin Madison (who are not affiliated with the OCCRP investigation) figured out how to connect those two pieces of information to untangle supply chains. Since then, their method has been used by scientists and groups like the OCCRP to expose deforestation at various stages of the beef supply chain.
Cattle laundering is not only driving deforestation in the Amazon forest but also within its formally protected areas — public lands set aside explicitly for the conservation of natural resources and, in many cases, Indigenous people. (Some protected areas permit the sustainable use of resources.)
Between 2013 and 2018, meatpackers slaughtered 60.5 million cattle in the Amazon states of Mato Grosso, Pará, and Rondônia. More than 3 million of them, or roughly 5 percent, were likely at least partially raised in protected areas, according to a study published this week in the journal Conservation Letters. More than half of the ranches that produced those cattle had recent deforestation, per the study, which also relied on public data.
Critically, of those cattle raised in protected land, 2.2 million of them traveled through ranches outside of protected areas before reaching slaughterhouses, which could, again, indicate laundering. (In some rare cases, ranchers can raise cattle legally in protected areas. It’s also hard to declare, definitively, that a ranch laundered its cattle, as it implies an intent to defraud slaughterhouses or the government.)
For the most part, it’s illegal for those slaughterhouses to purchase cattle from protected areas, especially if there’s any deforestation on those lands. Remarkably, many slaughterhouses also appear to have bought cattle directly from ranches in protected areas, which their standard screening processes, inadequate as they are, should flag.
What’s even more alarming is that these numbers are likely underestimates, according to Holly Gibbs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison and one of the study’s authors. Again, this research is based on publicly available information provided by ranchers, meaning they’re registering the location of illegal farms in government databases. “There’s a whole bunch of other properties that we’re not seeing,” Gibbs said, suggesting that not all ranchers are documenting their illegal activity.
At Vox’s request, Brandão, a researcher in Gibbs’s lab, shared other data (that was not included in the study above) that hints at cattle laundering on a large scale. Between June 2020 and January 2022, for example, 350 properties registered by ranchers in the state of Pará sold cattle, yet they had no visible pasture, according to satellite imagery. This could indicate that ranchers are doctoring paperwork to make it seem like cattle are coming from a different farm — presumably, one that hasn’t chopped down forest.
Other data Brandão shared indicates that many “dirty” and “clean” farms are owned by the same person. Gibbs suspects that in some cases these ranchers could be laundering cows through their own properties. “It’s really easy for them to keep that one property clean while they continue deforestation on the other properties,” Gibbs said.
One key takeaway from Gibbs’s research is that the majority of deforestation in the beef supply chain occurs before cows reach their last stop on their journey, and therefore, slaughterhouses have a hard time seeing it. “Meatpackers are currently missing about 60 percent of the deforestation within their supply chains by not considering indirect suppliers,” Gibbs said. “They’re really missing what’s going on.”
Where your cheeseburger comes in
It’s hard to overstate the consequences of cutting down the Amazon in the name of beef. Deforestation not only puts wildlife at risk — the Amazon is home to the most diverse assemblage of plants and animals on the planet — but it also fuels climate change.
Burning trees produces greenhouse gas emissions, while, at the same time, undermines the forest’s ability to suck up carbon. That pushes the forest toward a dangerous tipping point, whereby parts of the Amazon could dry out, causing more forest to die without any fire or chainsaws. Meanwhile, grazing cattle belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
More worrying still is that a lot of beef consumed around the world might actually come from cattle that replaced Amazon forest. That’s because many of the large meatpacking companies have truly global footprints: Once cattle enter their supply chains, it’s hard to know where the beef ends up.
The US, for one, is among the largest buyers of Brazilian beef, and the meatpacking giant JBS is its biggest supplier, according to a recent report by the Washington Post. JBS’s brands have sold meat to a number of large American grocery chains, including Kroger and the company that owns Safeway, Jewel-Osco, and Vons, the report revealed. (Several reports have implicated JBS in deforestation, including the Post story and a 2022 Global Witness investigation. You can read the company’s full statement to Vox here.)
Major meatpacking companies including JBS and Marfrig also have a long history of supplying beef to fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, according to the research and journalism organization Repórter Brasil.
For consumers, it’s not easy to trace the origin of the beef they buy. But they shouldn’t have to, said Moye of Global Witness. “The ultimate responsibility lies on the actors in the supply chain and the governments that regulate them,” he said.
Which leads us to a very big question: How are those actors, including the big meatpacking plants, still getting away with this?
Meatpacking companies are getting cleaner, but they have work ahead
If small teams of outside researchers can pinpoint the source of forest loss along supply chains, it seems as though giant corporations should be able to as well. Remember, it has been more than 10 years since they committed to source clean cattle.
While some experts fault meatpackers for not doing more, rooting out forest loss among indirect suppliers is actually quite challenging. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who first figured out how to do this, spent years developing computer programs to download records stored in clunky government systems. They then have to clean them up, link key bits of data together, and run the analysis.
These records are not designed to make cattle supply chains traceable, they just happen to serve that function if you know what you’re doing. “It requires a lot of computational expertise,” Brandão said. It’s not like meatpacking companies are just ignoring deforestation right in front of their eyes.
The Brazilian government has also made accessing data for these analyses harder in recent years. In 2019, when right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro came into power, the government restricted public access to ranch and cattle records throughout much of the Amazon. These documents needed for the analysis are now locked away on government websites.
Meanwhile, there isn’t a huge incentive for meatpacking companies to solve this problem in the first place, some experts say. If they choose not to buy from any ranches linked to deforestation, they’ll have a much smaller supply, Moye said.
“There’s so much deforestation and problems in the indirect suppliers that if they were to effectively monitor them, the volumes of cattle they receive would dramatically diminish,” Moye said. “They wouldn’t be able to slaughter the volumes they need.”
JBS disputed this claim. It’s in the meatpacker’s best interest, the company said, to have a transparent, sustainable supply chain, in part because it helps maintain the market for Brazilian beef. Inaccessible government data is “not beneficial to JBS or to the sector as a whole,” the company added.
Marfrig also disagreed with the notion that there’s value in obscuring transactions in the beef supply chain, reiterating its “non-negotiable commitment to the total traceability of its supply chain.”
Solving the cattle problem
Yes, things look bleak. Amazon deforestation is still rampant in the beef supply chain, and there are roadblocks to getting companies to root it out. So what now?
Consumers have some power; they can swap out beef for plant-based alternatives. Obviously, not all beef comes from the Amazon rainforest or is linked to deforestation, but it has a big environmental footprint regardless.
But the more immediate solutions lie in the hands of meat companies, starting with untangling their own supply chains.
Researchers and environmental advocates are trying to help. A few years ago, Gibbs’s lab at the University of Wisconsin and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) released software called Visipec, which is designed to help meatpackers monitor their indirect suppliers. Using the same source of government data as the research mentioned in this story, Visipec is essentially an add-on to existing corporate monitoring systems.
“It doesn’t provide a perfect picture of everything that’s happening — it’s still possible to launder,” Gibbs said. “But it goes a long way toward closing some of those loopholes and creating more pressure for the whole sector.”
Visipec runs into the same issues around data accessibility, as any tool would, but it’s a big step above what most companies currently do. Plus, those companies have a lot of power in Brazil and could push the government to make cattle data more accessible, experts say.
Marfrig and Minerva, another large meatpacker in Brazil, have started using Visipec, the companies confirmed to Vox. Some large companies including JBS also use other systems to monitor indirect suppliers, but they’re typically based on voluntary information provided by the farms that sell directly to them. (Marfrig also has its own voluntary monitoring system, in addition to Visipec.)
For several years now, NWF has also been working with meat companies to establish “good practices” for monitoring indirect suppliers. The idea is to make this level of monitoring feasible for companies while also eliminating more than 90 percent of the deforestation in their supply chains, according to Nathalie Walker, senior director of tropical forest and agriculture at NWF.
There’s also legislation working its way through the European Union and the US that would prohibit companies from importing agricultural products, including beef, that are linked to deforestation. These bills won’t necessarily provide the tools to increase transparency, but rather a greater incentive to do so. “If these regulations come into force, they can support and incentivize monitoring and traceability of indirect suppliers,” Walker said.
Ultimately, to put an end to cattle laundering, meat companies would need to monitor the movement of individual cows, Gibbs said. “If we wanted to end laundering, we would need animal-level traceability,” Gibbs said. “Until we keep track of the individual animals, some level of laundering will keep happening.”