Where’s the Sustainable Beef?

CattleIn Brazil, one forward-thinking ranch is proving that cattle, wildlife and the environment can coexist. Fazendas Sao Marcelo – whose four properties span 79,000 acres (32,000 hectares) in Brazil’s cerrado (wooded grassland) and Amazon regions -- recently became the first in the world to earn Rainforest Alliance certification for sustainable cattle production.

Across the Brazilian Amazon, 80 million cattle roam land that was once cerrado or tropical rainforest. Cattle ranchers are responsible for more than three-quarters of all forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon and -- despite public awareness and numerous campaigns to stop the destruction -- have shown few signs of improving their environmental stewardship.

Today, change is in the air. Businesses and consumers are aware of the link between beef and rainforest destruction, and asking for certified sustainable meat and leather. Now, the first of many farms has earned certification to help meet the demand.

With multiple protected areas, including a 32,000-acre (13,000-hectare) reserve within the Amazon, Sao Marcelo helps to buffer the natural forest and provide shelter and migration routes for wildlife. Its cattle are kept away from riparian areas and degraded land is replanted. Cowboys are also prohibited from killing local wildlife, even predatory animals that might attack calves.

“Fazendas São Marcelo’s certification breaks a paradigm and shows that large scale cattle production can be carried out in accordance with good pasture management, humane treatment of animals, conservation of natural resources and respect for workers and communities,” explains Luís Fernando Guedes Pinto, manager of agriculture certification at IMAFLORA, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) representative in Brazil who carried out the certification.

In addition to protecting wildlife habitat, the Rainforest Alliance Certified ranches must ensure that the cattle are well-treated. Sao Marcelo’s 60,000 head of cattle have tree covered pastures, which shield them from high temperatures, wind and rain. On-farm treatment and vaccination stations are designed to minimize stress on the animals, and cattle transport drivers are taught to drive carefully. Humane treatment extends to the horses ridden by the farm’s cowboys. São Marcelo teaches its riders techniques to minimize the risk of equine injury and has reduced total work hours to allow the horses additional rest time.

Because livestock are responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, São Marcelo manages its cattle’s diet closely to reduce their methane emissions. The cows eat an easily digestible mix of grass and mineral salt, complemented with organic sugarcane grown by nearby smallholders. Shade trees on pastures and conservation areas also reduce the climate footprint of the operation.

Arnaldo Eijsink, director-general of Fazendas São Marcelo, Ltda, says that Rainforest Alliance certification “represents the sum total of the work we have done in sustainability on the farms over the past 10 years.” He adds, “It is possible to produce [cattle] the right way in the Amazon.”

Sao Marcelo’s care extends to its workforce and their families. The cowboy staff is mostly male, so the farm teaches crafts and artisanal cooking to the wives of farm workers, giving them opportunities for economic advancement. The most rural of its farms provides a private school for 20 resident school children, and the company supports the public schools near its other properties, subsidizing teacher training to enhance education for the 10,000 schoolchildren in neighboring communities.

“This certification is good news for conservationists and food retailers. Conscientious consumers want to make intelligent food choices that contribute to healthy ecosystems and sustainable communities,” observes Sabrina Vigilante, the Rainforest Alliance’s director of strategic initiatives for the Americas.” With a world population of seven billion and growing, demand for beef, milk and leather will only increase. Sustainable ranching ensures that farms are efficient, productive and contribute to responsible land stewardship.”

The cattle certification standard was developed by the SAN. The three-year development process included consultation with over 130 organizations from 34 countries, bringing together cattle producers, industry associations, university and ministry officials, and representatives of environmental and animal-welfare NGOs. The standard was field tested in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya and Nicaragua before being finalized in 2010.

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