Brazil Works Towards Sustainable Cattle Sector

The gradual restrictions to expansion in Amazonia and the implications for cattle raising in Brazil are discussed by Patrick Knight, International Meat Secretariat.
calendar icon 14 June 2011
clock icon 10 minute read

With much of Amazonia fast becoming a no-go area for cattle, but with nowhere else for them to go, the migrations which have taken cattle all round Brazil in search of cheap land are coming to an end. The price of land is rising fast, so the only way forward now is to increase productivity and make raising cattle more sustainable.

Ever since Brazil was first discovered almost 500 years ago, cattle have played a major role in opening up the vast territory of the world’s fifth largest country, most of it covered in virgin forest when the first settlers arrived. In the intervening centuries, stock has moved around the country in several successive waves. But as restrictions tighten in Amazonia, the latest port of call, no more cheap land now remains for them to move to.

The first restrictions only began about 15 years ago, when the price of land also started to rise. But as controls are intensified, farmers are being forced to start raising cattle in a sustainable fashion, rather than just allowing them to roam freely. This means putting more emphasis to raising yields and improving quality, rather than just occupying new lands.

The first settlers from Portugal brought European breeds with them to the north east. But the long haired stock suffered from the heat and dry weather, and the pests they attracted. The second important wave occurred about 150 years ago, when the open prairies of Brazil´s southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul, just north of Uruguay and Argentina, were found to be more appropriate for European breeds, notably Hereford and Aberdeen Angus. Most of the meat was dried for dispatch to the north east, where most of Brazil´s population was concentrated at the time.

Nelore breed introduced

But about 100 years ago, a batch of 6,000 Zebu cattle were imported from India to the interior state of Minas Gerais. These breeds proved so successful that Zebu stock, better known in Brazil as Nelore, now form 80 per cent of the 180 million head herd. Short haired, resistant to the pests which afflict European breeds and able to withstand heat and strong sunlight, these animals have prospered while those of European descent have shrunk in size. The next migration occurred in the first half of this century, as with floods of people leaving the countryside, cities grew fast. Herds moved westwards from Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo, fast being opened up for sugar, into Goias, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Mato Grosso.

As the area down to arable crops in Brazil, notably soya, and sugar cane, as well as planted forests for making wood pulp, has expanded, cattle have been forced to move. The most recent migration has been into the fringes of Amazonia, where more than 20 million head now graze. Soya now dominates in the south, where herds have fallen from 23 to 14 million head in the past 30 years. The herds in the south east, where sugar cane is concentrated, have fallen from 33 million to 19 million head in the same time.

Responsible for sustainability matters with ABIEC, the Association of Brazilian Beef Exporters, Fernando Sampaio says that the turning point came in 1992, when Rio de Janeiro hosted “Eco 92” the first ecology congress to be held in Brazil. Eco 92 brought tens of thousands of people concerned with preserving the environment from all over the world to Brazil and the ideas expressed in Rio, notably concern about the growing threat of the unrestricted clearances of the Amazon rain forest, unquestioned until then, had a big impact. As Mr Sampaio points out, the main priority for successive governments until then, had been to encourage people to migrate to the then virtually empty Amazon region.

The Amazon region forms half of Brazil and the whole of Europe could easily be fitted in with space left over. But the region was virtually uninhabited until the middle of the last century, apart from a few rubber tappers, people collecting Brazil nuts and about 150,000 Indians.

Free plots for amazon settlers

Worried about the not entirely fanciful risk of some other power taking control of Amazonia, the soldiers who ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 set about building highways to encourage people from the poor north east, and the south of the county to move north. Small farmers were being pushed off their land in the south and they were offered large plots of land on the new settlements.

Highways running south to north, including one linking the new capital Brasilia to the port of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon river and one from the capital of Mato Grosso state, Cuiaba, to the capital of the state of Rondonia, Porto Velho, as well as the east to west Transamazonica highway, were carved through the virgin jungle. The new roads brought the first land transport to many places previously only accessible by water. To attract settlers, plots were handed out free to the new arrivals.

Since the mid 1990´s only 20 per cent of each plot may be cleared of its native cover. But back in the 1960´s and 70`s settlers only earned the right to a full title when land had been entirely cleared of cover. Settlers were then rewarded with a second plot. As well as hundreds of thousands of small settlers, many migrants just squatted on land, with no questions asked.

The theory was that settlers would plant crops such as rice, coffee and cocoa and live off the proceeds. But the settlements were far from markets and the dirt roads were impassable during the long rainy season, so this proved impossible. To survive, farmers turned to raising a few head of cattle. Slaughterhouses were built along the roads running into the region and beef moved south along them to the fast growing cities.

Amazon clearances and restrictions

The 1980´s was the time of the great Amazon clearances, when huge tracts were cut down for the valuable timber they contained. Once this was done, the land was burnt and planted to rice. Cattle then moved in, and if the land was fertile, which much was not, soya has followed. By this time, however, many of the original settlers were defeated and had given up. So numerous medium and even very large ranches were moulded from their holdings. At this stage, companies could deduct the cost of clearing land and establishing farms in Amazonia from their tax liabilities. Many such companies, including car maker Volkswagen, did so.

But following Eco 92, by which time Brazil had a civilian government, concern began to grow, first abroad and increasingly in Brazil itself about the damage the jungle clearances was causing. So from being encouraged to clear the entire area, the law was changed, first to allow 50 per cent to be cut and more recently, just 20 per cent.

Rather than being encouraged to clear river banks of vegetation, considered the best way to defeat yellow fever and malaria, it was decreed that an area 30 metres wide should be left uncut along watercourses.

At the same time, legislation restricting plantings on steep hillside and on the tops of hills was introduced, often by politicians with scant knowledge of reality in the countryside. This is precisely where most arabica coffee is planted. The legislation aimed at restricting forest clearances, coupled with a new generation of satellites constantly photographing what is happening below, has been very effective. Most importers now insist on certificates showing that timber had come from sustainable plantations, and the export of timber from Brazil has almost halved in recent years.

Simultaneously with the growing restrictions in Amazonia, research by the Zebu Breeders in Minas Gerais and by Brazil´s Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa, set about on the one hand improving the quality of herds, on the other, bringing new types of grasses from Africa, notably Brachiaria and Colonial. Such grasses have gradually come to replace the less nutritious native ones. Productivity has been rising steadily, with the result that animals now reach the ideal weight for slaughter much earlier than they did previously. Animals which used to put on weight in the wet summer months, but lose most of it again in the dry winter, now gain weight all the year round. This has had the unforeseen, but very positive result of greatly reducing the amount of methane gas emitted by each animal during its lifetime.

Land pressure, lack of investment

At the same time as new restrictions on further expansion in Amazonia have been put in place, an important new variable has appeared. The pressure on land from soya, sugar cane and forestry has increased greatly. Fast growing demand for animal feed, notably from China, has caused the amount of soya produced in Brazil to double to 70 million tonnes in the past 10 years. Demand for wood pulp, half of which goes to China as well, has risen by more than 50 per cent in that time. Demand for sugar, of which Brazil is by far the world´s leading producer and exporter, has grown by 10 per cent a year for each of the past 10 years. Productivity gains have allowed the amount produced to increase far faster than the area planted. But this process is reaching a limit. To meet demand, the area planted to all arable crops, sugar cane and commercial forests, now about 60 million hectares, will have to be increased by at least 20 million hectares in the next 20 years as demand for food continues to grow.

Brazil´s 180 million head herd now grazes on about 170 million hectares, with about 46 kgs of beef produced per hectare each year. Just in the past five years, says Mr Sampaio, increased productivity has allowed ten million hectares of pasture to be freed up for planting with arable crops, even though the amount of meat produced has continued to grow. Raising the number of cattle per hectare from the present one, to 1.9 head, is quite possible. If more higher yielding grasses is planted, animals rotated between plots before the grass is worn down and by giving stock additional feed during the dry winter months, coupled with genetic improvements, the same amount of meat could be produced on 70 million fewer hectares than at present. If the density were increased to the still modest 2.5 animals per hectare, almost 100 million hectares could be freed up for agriculture. This is much more than will be needed to grow all extra food which will be needed for the foreseeable future.

Three million farmers now raise cattle in Brazil, but very few of them make much money out of the activity, says Mr Sampaio. Few are able to make the major investments needed to push up yields - such as improving the quality of their stock by using high quality semen from prize winning bulls, paying for fencing to break huge farms down into manageable plots so stock can be rotated, and to buying more fertiliser and lime. De-capitalised, some farmers in the centre west, south and south east are giving up ranching altogether. Others are renting out their land for planting to soya, trees, or sugar cane. Mr Sampaio says that 30 new sugar mills are planned for Mato Grosso do Sul alone in the next few years, while two or three new pulp mills are to be built as well.

Moves to sustainability

Brazil’s first “forestry code” was published in 1935, but it has been altered so much since then as to leave everybody confused. A new code, which will retain the core of the existing legislation, but will clarify and simplify it, is to be discussed by Congress in the next few weeks. Mr Sampaio hopes that it will be voted into law, if with modifications. At the moment, nobody is certain which pieces of the existing legislation will remain in force. Because of this, banks are unwilling to lend farmers money, packers to buy beef, and it has become extremely difficult to buy or sell farms.

One issue remaining to be settled is whether farmers who were encouraged to clear their entire property until the 1990´s, will be obliged to re-plant the area now to be left untouched. Mr Sampaio says this would make many smaller farms completely unviable. As Mr Sampaio points out, the new legislation would affect developed states such as Sao Paulo, where virtually all the land is cultivated, more than Amazonia, where only about 20 per cent of all the jungle has been cleared so far He hopes that although the new legislation will clarify the situation, the details should be left for local authorities to decide.

Circumstances vary enormously from one part of Brazil to another. Following pressure from customers in Europe who were concerned that soya was at least in part responsible for the cutting and burning of the Amazon forest, the soya crushers introduced a moratorium on buying beans grown on illegal plantings. Brazil´s leading beef packers, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva have also undertaken not to buy stock from properties where land has been cleared illegally, or whose ownership is in doubt. Mr Sampaio says that moving towards complete sustainability will be a slow process in a country as large and complex as Brazil. But the process has begun and is gradually being adopted by more farmers.

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