After that chicken post, this one might cause you to start thinking I’m just out to ruin everyone’s dinner. Not the case, but I coudn’t read this Guardian Unlimited article about the real costs of cheap beef. The cost is higher than you might think.
Until 1990 Brazil produced only enough beef to feed itself. Since then its cattle herd has grown by some 50 million, and the country has become, according to some estimates, the world’s biggest exporter: it now sells 1.9m tonnes a year. The United Kingdom is its fourth-largest customer, after Russia, Egypt and Chile. One region is responsible for 80% of the growth in Brazilian beef production. It’s the Amazon.
The past three years have been the most destructive in the Brazilian Amazon’s history. In 2004 26,000 sq km of rainforest were burned: the second- highest rate on record. This year could be worse. And most of it is driven by cattle ranching.
…Cattle ranching, if it keeps expanding in the Amazon, threatens two-fifths of the world’s remaining rainforest. This is not just the most diverse ecosystem but also the biggest reserve of standing carbon. Its clearance could provoke a hydrological disaster in South America, as rainfall is reduced as the trees come down. Next time you see footage of the forest burning, remember that you might have paid for it.
Between the carbon and the biological diversity, we have no idea what we’re losing when acres of rainforest disappears. But the cost isn’t just environmental. There’s a human cost to.
…the ranchers are now employing some 25,000 slaves on their estates. These are people who are transported thousands of miles from their home states, then – forced to buy their provisions from the ranch shop at inflated prices – kept in permanent debt. Because of the expansion of beef production in the Amazon, slavery in Brazil has quintupled in 10 years.
The article goes on to offer further details on British consumption of Brazilian beef, and doesn’t indicate that the U.S. is among Brazil’s biggest beef customers (the top four are Russia, Egypt, Chile and the U.K.), and the only article I can find with any information is a two-year old article suggestion that import restrictions keep Brazilian beef out of the U.S.
Still, it’s something to think about the next time you sit down to a burger.