I wrote in “What do cows have to do with it” that US consumption of beef has very little to do with deforestation; and that worldwide the primary driver is still population growth. Even so, cattle ranching is a very significant, and growing, user of deforested land in Brazil even if it’s not the initial cause of the deforestation itself so it’s useful to understand our role in that.
Americans eat an enormous amount of beef; even though consumption has declined about 7.5% over the last decade, we still get through 25 billion pounds annually (that’s over 11 million tonnes). But the US is a major producer of beef, so how much of what we eat every year is imported from Brazil? The Brazilians are very proud of their beef industry – especially the export sector – so information on that is very easy to find; there are mountains of very detailed statistics at the ABIEC, which conveniently has an English language website. The first interesting bit of info I found there was this very nice infographic:
Which really has pretty much all of the information needed to relate US beef consumption to exports and, importantly, to the amount of land devoted to it. The only extra bit of information needed is the proportion of Brazilian livestock farming conducted in the Amazon and it will be possible to see exactly what effect US beef consumption has on the rainforest.
Exports are broken down into three types: fresh meat, processed meat and offal. Fresh meat appears in the form of steaks or hamburgers, while processed beef typically comes in cans as corned beef and other manufactured foods. Offal is, well, offal.
It’s possible to pull the statistics for 2014/2103 and for 2012/2011 and they show that Brazil has a very rocky trading relationship with the US as far as beef is concerned. Repeated bans on the import of fresh meat due to fears about both foot and mouth disease and BSE are combined with import quotas which severely limit imports. 2012 was the last year of fresh meat imports and in that year the US ranked 58th in the list of recipients of fresh beef from Brazil: we imported a mere 155 tonnes that year. The story is very different for processed beef, where the US ranks 1st with an annualised rate of 18,000 tonnes. Offal accounts for 825 tonnes.
So now we can do a little arithmetic. Even if we imagine that the ban on fresh meat is lifted, the US total of just over 19,000 tonnes compares with Brazil’s 10.2 Million tonnes and translates into 315 thousand hectares of Brazilian ranches devoted to beef eaten in the US. That’s 1215 square miles, or about a quarter the size of San Diego County.
But what we really want to know is how much of that is in the Amazon, so we need to know the proportion of Amazon to non-Amazon cattle and that information is available from an article in Tropical Conservation Science. The data in that article is a little old, the most recent figures are from 2009 but the proportions seem to have stabilised several years before that at 70/120 so we can factor that into our arithmetic and come up with 448 square miles as the amount of Amazon rainforest devoted to feeding Americans.
That’s almost exactly the same as the land area of California’s third-smallest county: San Mateo.
So who is eating all that beef? Well, it’s the Brazilians of course, which brings us back to the real driving force behind deforestation there, as well as elsewhere: population growth.