Beef Production’s “Steak” in Climate Change
Beef is one of the largest contributors to climate change primarily due to (i) deforestation for cattle pasture and (ii) livestock emissions.
(i) via Deforestation
Land-clearing related to beef production is the largest contributor to deforestation, accounting for nearly 60% of forest loss in studied areas of prevalent tropical forest loss . This impact is amplified in South America, where beef production contributed to 71% of the deforestation seen from 1995 – 2005 (See Figure 1) . Clearing and burning forests subsequently create an estimated 15% of CO2 emissions  due to the:
- Loss of CO2-absorbing trees and
- Subsequent massive release of heat-trapping carbon previously stored in trees.
(ii) via Livestock Emission
In addition to requiring significant land use, cattle also go through a fermentation process of plant-based foods in a specialized stomach prior to digestion. This process emits polluting gases including methane, through belching and flatulence. Research estimates that livestock emits 7.1 GTCO 2-eq per annum, representing 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Beef and cattle milk production represent 4.5 GTCO 2-eq per annum or nearly 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions (See Figure 2) .
Why Should JBS Care?
Addressing the link between beef production and global warming must be a fundamental part of JBS’s strategy going forward. They must consider this link when answering key operational questions such as “What suppliers do we partner with? ” or “What systems do we need to invest in to help us meet our sustainability goals?”
JBS will continue to face pressure from its customers – who are attempting to adapt their own policies in the face of climate change – to provide sustainable beef products. For example, McDonalds, a JBS customer, recently committed to only sourcing deforestation-free beef as part of its corporate sustainability program . As of 2013, 40% of McDonald’s green-house gas emissions came from its beef supply chain vs. 30% from its stores . As McDonalds and other corporate clients react to consumer and stakeholder pressure to build sustainability plans, JBS and other suppliers must also be agile in adapting its own policies, processes and products.
At the same time, activist groups and consumers are placing higher scrutiny onto the beef industry. Articles like the Time’s “How A Vegetarian Diet Could Help Save the Planet”  are building public awareness to the link between beef and climate change. As an industry, JBS must be able to provide customers comfort or alternative solutions.
The Present: What is JBS Doing Now?
JBS outlined a detail sustainability plan and rated land management as the company’s top current significant item. (see Figure 3). JBS has pursued several initiatives to address the link between its business and climate change.
Select Actions Taken:
- Three major slaughterhouses including JBS signed The Cattle Agreement in 2009. Through this agreement, JBS committed to stop sourcing from suppliers involved in deforestation within the Amazon Biome . Subsequently, 85% of JBS’s existing ranchers signed up so they could continue selling to JBS .
- JBS co-created the Global Roundtable of Sustainable Beef in 2010, the first global organization dedicated to involving all stakeholders (suppliers, manufacturers, customers) to discuss and advance beef supply chain improvements .
- JBS actively participated in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association research on the beef value chain by providing comprehensive data from its facilities .
The Future: “Moo”-ving Forward
Looking ahead, there is still a lot of room for improvement for JBS as a role model and industry leader. JBS has the opportunity to pursue the following initiatives:
- Commit to stop sourcing from suppliers involved in deforestation across the globe, beyond just South America and the Amazon;
- Invest in and work with cattle ranches to educate and promote deforestation-free methods of raising cattle;
- Create and implement clear policies and methods such as map-based monitoring to trace and verify all suppliers directly;
- Consider vertical integration / owning cattle pastures to control and verify more of the supply chain (this strategy is risky and would shift business model)
- Invest in R&D for sustainable meat replacements. Although this may cause decreased demand for its core product, JBS has the opportunity to be at the forefront of innovation in both the “meat” and “meat-alternative” categories;
- Serve as a role model to the beef industry by raising awareness about JBS’s own sustainability efforts;
- Implement “give back” programs; for example, commit to plant a tree for every 100,000 of cattle produced;
- Invest profits back into forest conservation programs.
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