Mongabay Agency’s Article evaluates the results of the study: “From pasture to plate: subsidies and beef’s environmental footprint”

Launched by the Escolhas Institute, the study showed the financial and environmental impacts of the cattle beef chain all over Brazil.

Read the entire publication.


Brazilian beef is expensive to the treasury and to environment

by Naira Hofmeister on April 2, 2020 |


  • – Taxpayers’ money is helping to leverage one of the most productive activities prone to deforestation in Brazil, according to a study. In the last decade, the state and federal governments waived of R$12.3 billion per year in order to stimulate the cattle raising and the beef industry in Brazil. The return in taxes, however, was of R$15.1 billion per year.
  • Doing the math this means that, of each R$5 collected in taxes by the beef sector, only R$1 effectively returns to society – the rest is returned in benefits to producers.
  • The carbon footprint accumulated in one decade (2008-2017) by the chain, in Brazil, surpasses 25 kg of CO²e for 78 kg of CO²e per meet kilogram, when the deforestation is taken into consideration. In the Legal Amazonia, the carbon footprint increases 8.5 times when the overthrown forest enters in the account: from 17 kg to 145 kg of harmful gases per kilogram of beef.


  • Pursuant the survey, integrated systems crop-livestock, in which the producer cultivates the field in intercalated periods with the pasture, reveal negative carbon footprint – instead of issuing the gases, they kidnap them. However, only 4% of the pastures in the Amazonia use integrated system.

One of each ten beefs that get to the Brazilian plate was paid by the taxpayer. The cattle beef chain in the country is one of the most productive activities subsided by the state and federal governments – that offered, in average R$12.3 billion per year for the sector in tax incentives, easy credit and even debt amnesty.

Although it is a billionaire industry – in the last March 25, the JBS reported a profit of R$6 billion in 2019, the best result of its history –, the return that it gives to the public treasure is small, if compared to the governmental incentives: in average, R$15.1 billion per year.

Doing the math, it means that, of each R$5 collected in taxes by the beef sector, only R$1 indeed returns to society – the rest is returned in benefits to producers.

The calculation considered the decade between 2008 and 2017. However, between 2015 and 2016, the collection was lesser than what the state governments and the Union offered in benefits for the sector.

Those are some of the conclusions of the study “From pasture to plate: subsidies and beefs’ environmental footprint”, an effort of the Escolhas Institute that brought to light unpublished data for Brazil.

“The public power invested in the beef chain R$123 billion in one decade. This is a completely new result, that did not exist for that chain and nor for others in the country”, emphasized, in interview to Escolhas’ site, the economist Petterson Molina Vale, coordinator of the economic part of the study. The Mongabay sent to the surveyor questions about the work, but he preferred not to respond.

Whether the production of beef in Brazil is supported on a comfortable mattress of public resources, it leaves as a track the commitment of the environment, mainly in areas of the Amazonia and of the Brazilian Cerrado.

The Escolhas Institute found that the meat’s carbon footprint in the states of the Legal Amazonia is six times greater than that measured in other states of the federation. This means that the creation and industrialization system, when it occurs in this part of the country, emits six times more greenhouse gases than in other regions.

In Matopiba region (in the frontier of Maranhão, Piauí, Tocantins, and Bahia), where it is being opened one of the mainly agricultural Brazilian frontiers nowadays – and whose vegetation is a mosaic that includes Amazon rainforest and savannas of the Cerrado – the contamination of the atmosphere by the cattle chain is eight times greater than in the rest of Brazil.

“This is the higher relative emission for kilogram of produced meat. Although, in absolute terms the Amazonia issues much more because it is greater and the overthrown vegetation contains much more amount of carbon”, emphasizes the biologist Roberto Strumpf, coordinator of the environmental area of the study.

The meat industry is one of the most prones to deforestation. Three major slaughterhouses in the country account for 42% of deforestation in the Brazilian Legal Amazon, and last year the Federal Public Ministry said that even with responsibility agreements made with industry and retail, it is impossible to ensure meat free of deforestation when the herds are in forest areas.













Translation for the table above:

Tax Collection x subsidies of the meat chain

The subsidies represented 79% of what was collected in 10 years by state governments and the Union.

Verde escuro = Collection  / Verde Claro = Subsidies

Source: From pasture do the plate: subsidies of the beef’s environmental footprint/ Escolhas Institute


The Escolhas Institute for its own, in a preceding study, had discovered that a zero deforestation policy could not to impact the cattle-culture, nor to avoid its expansion, since there were used the lands already overthrown and followed the best agriculture practices.

“If there already exist land stocks that can be used to increase the production, wouldn’t the subsidies be serving as stimulation for the deforestation?”, this is what the researchers ask in the executive summary of survey “From pasture to plate”.

The results, however, do not allow to affirm that the public money is financing overthrown, although the team suggests that “the subsidies could be adopted to stimulate productive practices more sustainable or more healthful products.

“To conclude that part of the money of the taxpayer finances the deforestation, would be needed to go further with the survey. But now we know that the meat chain depends too much of the public resources, and we also know what it delivers in environmental terms, so it is possible to discuss what kind of production we want to finance”, suggests Jaqueline Ferreira, project and products manager of the Escolhas Institute.

The Escolhas’ study considered all the meat chain trajectory for the calculations of the environmental footprint – that includes the water consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of meat produced in the Legal Amazon, Matopiba and the rest of Brazil. The same was done for the calculation of the subsidies given, that consider state governments and the Union.

There were accounted data evolving from the inputs to the production, information about the breeding and fattening of animals, including soil management and removal of natural vegetation, use of agricultural machinery and also meat processing (slaughter and industrialization) and the way to the consumer, whether in the domestic market or in the export.

“The meat chain is fundamental. It generates a lot of revenue and it is also important from the cultural point of view and the productive occupation. But today it is the main vector of deforestation, specifically in the Amazonia. We are proposing an economic approach to debate one of the major environmental issues and try to make some progress on the barriers to sustainable development,” Ferreira justifies.

Deforestation in 2019 puts in risk one decade of emissions’ reduction in Amazonia

Without surprising the researchers, the Escolhas Instituto’s study proved that, among all the production stages mapped, what is more considered in the calculation of the carbon footprint of the meat chain is, indeed, the deforestation.

They compared scenarios in three great regions of Brazil (Legal Amazonia, Matopiba and other states jointly; and still the national average), considering only the cattle’s own emissions and of the pastures and also those two variables plus the areas of overthrown vegetation, pursuant with the systems of the National Institute of Space Researches (Inpe).

The result is that, all over Brazil, the carbon footprint accumulated in one decade (2008-2017) surpasses 25 kg of CO²e per kg of meat to 78 kg of CO²e/kg, when the deforestation is taken into account. (CO²e is the measure that the scientists use to calculate the emissions of greenhouse effect, that are all converted in one measure of carbon). In the region of the Legal Amazonia, the carbon footprint increases 8.5 times when the overthrown forest is considered: from 17 kg of CO²e/kg to 145 kg of CO²e/kg.

The average of the ten years hides a relevant data: the emissions are falling even inside the Amazonia. They varied from 344 kg of CO2e per kilogram of meat in 2008 to 66 kg CO2e/kg in 2017, representing a fall of 81% throughout the decade.


Translation for the table above:

Carbon footprint per region

Lateral: ……/ kg of meat

On the graphic:

Legal Amazonia  / Matopiba / Other states / Brazil

Dark Green: Cattle and pasture

berylline: Cattle, pasture and deforestation

Source: From pasture to plate: subsidies and beef’s environmental footprint / Escolhas Institute


The problem is that the survey got only to the year of 2017. “All the Inpe data of 2018 and 2019 point to a substantial increase of deforestation. That caveat is very important because, if we continue in this environmental setback, all this gain may be lost, which will impact the sector’s reputation and may incur non-tariff barriers for Brazilian meat”, warns the biologist Roberto Strumpf.

The study also measured the water footprint of national livestock. The observation, in this case, is good: the Brazilian cattle chain consumes an average of 64 liters of water per kilo of meat produced in the country, considering the decade between 2008 and 2017. “It is much less than in other countries”, explains the researcher. It is important to point out that this is the so-called “blue footprint”, which refers to the use of groundwater or reservoirs that may suffer competition with other productive activities or even with human consumption.

As the sector mainly supplies itself with cattle raised on pasture, the largest volume of water that affects production is the rain, necessary to keep the field fresh. It is the green footprint, which in the Brazilian case is high, but does not compromise water systems and has low environmental impact, according to Strumpf.

But, with climate changes underway, an alert is lit for the production in the Midwest, where a large part of the Brazilian herd is concentrated. The rainfall regime in this region depends very much on the Amazonia, which is heading towards a process of becoming a savannah if the current path of deforestation is not interrupted. In other words, in a scenario of drought, economic activity may be compromised.

Proper management makes cattle farming allied to the environment

If, on the one hand, it confirms that most of the emissions in the carbon chain actually occur “from the gate to the inside”, on cattle farms – mainly because many are in deforested areas -, the study also indicates a possible way to maintain activity and reduce the commitment of the environment. According to the survey, integrated crop-livestock systems, in which the producer cultivates the field in periods interspersed with pasture, instead of emitting carbon into the atmosphere, sequester greenhouse gases, contributing to planetary health.

In the Legal Amazon, this format of cattle farming had negative emissions every year measured by the research – even when considering the harmful effects of deforestation. However, only 4% of the pastures in the Amazon use an integrated system, although 35% of the pastures are considered well handled, which is the stage before the ideal.

“The capacity of soils to remove carbon from the atmosphere has been discussed at the academy for some time, but data were missing,” notes Strumpf, who now offers science numbers comparable to measurements already made, but accounted for by Brazilian region, which did not exist until then.

What follows without a clear response is how many years this well cared for pasture system can hold carbon instead of throwing the gas into the atmosphere: “The behavior of the soil with carbon is like that of a sponge in water. If it is dry, the sponge’s capacity to suck in water is enormous, but it will reach a point where it becomes saturated. It’s too similar as the soil, but we don’t know how long it can keep absorbing,” Strumpf argues.

It is because of the degraded pastures that Matopiba was the champion in the carbon footprint survey: 48% of the pasture in these areas have this characteristic. Faced with such a heterogeneous scenario of cattle farming in the country, the researchers evaluated that it was necessary to launch a questioning, registered in the executive summary of the study: “As the Brazilian cattle farming shelters efficient producers and others of very low productivity, it is valid to question whether the public money would not be contributing to keep producers that would not be able to compete in normal market conditions due to their inefficiency and low profitability?” And also: “What are the bottlenecks to be overcome through public policies so that these practices gain scale?

Livestock development programs do not include sustainability as a criterion

The data from the Escolhas Institute study highlight the fact that the largest livestock development programs in Brazil – the Plano Safra and Pronaf – do not include sustainability criteria when assessing the granting of subsidized credit. The researchers point out that if there were “a requirement for commitments and goals that would make the sector’s production environmentally and economically more efficient, reducing emissions and improving productivity”, the scenario could be different.

One way out, in this case, could be to condition public loans to the so-called ABC program, of the Ministry of Agriculture, which stimulates low-carbon agricultural and livestock activities. “Moreover, the mechanisms that banks use to monitor sustainability are very fragile, when non-existent,” adds Jaqueline Ferreira, manager of projects and products of the Escolhas Institute.

Another problem, in the executive’s opinion, is the lobby that the national agribusiness sector exerts over the governors. “The federal government does not grant amnesty for a debt looking at sustainability, but rather for political pressure,” she laments, noting that the study is being distributed to parliamentarians and decision makers to subsidize debates on the issue.

Benner Image: Marizilda Cruppe/EVE/Greenpeace.

Article published by Xavier Bartaburu

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