Dealing with cattle overgrazing in the Cerrado, Brazil

With ever-increasing demand causing deforestation and environmental degradation, how can the planet stomach our appetite for beef?
At Millennium Farm in the Brazilian Cerrado, cattle rancher Thimoteo Lobreiro raises two sorts of animal. A half-tonne beef steer is hard to miss, but to see the other you need a microscope. Thimoteo grows cultures of efficient microorganisms which, when sprayed onto fields, help to restore soil fertility. Healthy soil means healthy plants, and healthy plants mean healthy cattle.

On nearby ranches, the situation is different. Overgrazing damages the vegetation and the underlying soil structure, leading to erosion and poor quality pasture. Farmers become dependent on chemical fertilizers and weed killers, and may need to buy expensive seeds and extra cattle feed. But even as the land is becoming less productive, demand for beef is on the rise, pushing cattle and feed crops into other ecosystems. In Brazil, cattle production is the single biggest threat to the Amazon rainforest, and responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use.

Thimoteo avoids overgrazing by regularly rotating cattle between different areas of pasture. This gives the grass a chance to regenerate naturally and establish healthy roots, nourished by a regular concentrated dose of manure from the herd. Production costs are around 40 per cent lower than on conventional ranches, but productivity is higher: the animals are able to eat grass all year round and grow quicker, and the meat tastes better. In between the microbes and the cattle, plant life, insects and birds are flourishing too.

Leading land use

The innovations at Millennium Farm are being supported by a partnership between WWF-Brazil and Embrapa Beef Cattle, part of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, which aims to promote better management practices for beef production in the Cerrado. It’s one of a number of beef projects WWF is working on around the world, from the Florida Everglades to the plains of Namibia, from Argentine pampas to Swedish meadows. The locations and production methods could hardly be more different, but all of them aim to show how beef can be produced in a more sustainable way.

The significance of beef production is hard to overstate. “This is the commodity that covers the greatest percentage of the Earth’s surface,” points out Ruaraidh Petre of sustainable development organization Solidaridad.

“Around a third of the world’s useful land is used for grazing or to grow feed crops for beef.” With the world’s population growing and beef consumption increasing, that area is increasing still further. That means more natural habitats being converted to farmland – particularly as existing pastures become degraded and less productive. Damaging side effects include erosion, silted-up rivers and chemical run-off.

New tools to help solve the issue

In 2010, WWF convened some of the biggest players in the beef industry to form the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). They included the world’s biggest beef buyer, McDonald’s; the biggest beef retailer, Walmart; and two of the largest beef traders, JBS and Cargill. Also represented on the GRSB are producers, leading NGOs including Solidaridad, The Nature Conservancy and the Rainforest Alliance, and regional sustainability initiatives such as beef roundtables in Brazil and Australia.

The GRSB’s vision is of “a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.” Achieving this will mean minimizing impacts on climate, water, land use and biodiversity; improving animal welfare and producer livelihoods; and sharing, promoting and adopting better management practices. Because of the huge variation in beef production methods, a global sustainable beef standard is likely to be a long way off.

The first step for GRSB is to to catalyze and coordinate national and regional programmes, which may include certification schemes. “The roundtable brings the interests of diverse stakeholders together to solve a common problem,” says Ruaraidh, who chairs the GRSB. “It’s an issue for big businesses, which understand that unsustainable production is a big threat to the industry. It’s an issue for the many small producers who are trying to make a living on marginal land and need help to get ecosystems functioning again. And because beef production uses such a large area of land in almost every ecosystem, it’s a vital issue for all of us.”

This is an important tool to address the negative impacts of beef rearing and complements other initiatives, such as the development of better management practices in field projects, the development and maintenance of areas for conservation and raising awareness about better consumption.

More examples of how transforming markets can make a difference can be found here. 

Better Production for a Living Planet

BPLP story beef / ©: WWF
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  • Habitat conversion;
  • Overgrazing – decreased plant biodiversity, low residual plant cover and soil erosion;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Water and air pollution;
  • Impacts from feed production (grass versus grain-fed);
  • Indigenous livelihoods tied to beef production.

  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Conservation;
  • Improved food safety and nutrition.

Beef production isn’t going to decline. So we urgently need to improve how production takes places and how we use land.

Ruaraidh Petre, Regional Director at Solidaridad Southern Africa / Chair, Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef

  •  / ©: GRSB
    The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is multi-stakeholder initiative that recognizes and respects the important role a sustainable beef supply chain plays in feeding the growing global population.


  • Production
    USA, Brazil, EU, China, Australia, India

    USA, Russia, Japan, EU

    Present Focal Regions
    Amazon, Cerrado, Chaco region of Paraguay and Argentina


  • Demand Drivers
    Income, population, consumption

    Future focus for success
    Continued work in Brazil, Australia and the USA – major producing countries – are of particular importance. India, which is projected to be the largest exporter of beef in 2012, and China, due to its increasing production and consumption of beef, are also important.

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