Avoiding Backfires in Brazil

Simon Hall responds to Breakthrough’s <i>Future of Meat</i>

Full article is available here.
Read more responses here.

In her essay, The Future of Meat, Marian Swain helps shed some light on the complexities of global livestock production systems and draws attention to the need to update the way we think about and approach meat production around the world. She highlights several important issues throughout the article, but focuses on how intensification can impact cattle production systems. This is a critical point and one that deserves a bit more discussion.

Agricultural intensification, particularly with regards to cattle production in developing nations, is often assumed to have inherent land-sparing benefits, and other potentially positive social, economic, and environmental benefits. In many instances, investments in productivity gains can help deliver positive benefits, but these optimistic scenarios are not necessarily guaranteed. Policies and initiatives aimed at intensifying cattle production and improving productivity gains, by themselves, will not likely deliver maximum resource savings and optimal conservation outcomes. Let’s take a quick look at why these efforts may not be effective in isolation, and how we can advance solutions that will help overcome these challenges.

Cattle production systems are often characterized as either intensive or extensive, but in fact, these classifications just represent two extremes on a broad spectrum of practices. There is a tremendous degree of variability in how cattle are reared, so this spectrum of practices can look very different depending on the national or regional context.

Take Brazil for example. On average, Brazilian cattle production tends to be dominated by relatively extensive pasture-based systems, and there are many initiatives underway to increase productivity. For the most part, this is being done by improving pasture and herd management, using better grass mixtures that are easier for animals to digest and deliver greater nutritional content, fencing to create paddocks for rotational grazing, and better breeding techniques. This is what I would characterize as “moderate intensification”.

These practices clearly indicate a move towards the intensive end of the spectrum, but they are not a radical departure from the current system, as they still fundamentally rely on pasture grasses as the primary feed input (as opposed to grains or oilseeds).

The key point here is that we don’t necessarily need a rapid proliferation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across Brazil (and other developing countries) in order to achieve significant social, economic and environmental benefits. This is not to say that we should completely avoid all use of optimized feed in Brazil. In fact, many Brazilian cattle ranchers already rely on supplemental feed sources like soy and maize, during the dry season when grasses can be less viable. And as Marian Swain rightly points out, the integration of optimized feed during the final fattening phase of production, in combination with improvements to pasture quality, could help reduce greenhouse gas intensity and generate important win-win outcomes.

While there are certainly opportunities for win-wins, it’s important to recognize that land-use dynamics in Brazil are very complex, especially when considering agricultural production. The expansion of ranching and agriculture are, by far, the leading drivers of deforestation. And when emissions from deforestation are factored in, the emissions footprint from cattle ranching goes through the roof.

There is evidence that the widespread adoption of moderate intensification practices, including the integration of supplemental feed, could help reduce deforestation and emissions from deforestation–the greatest environmental challenges currently facing the sector. Instead of expanding further into the forest frontier, cutting and burning additional areas to make way for more pasture, expansion could take place by increasing the stocking rate within existing ranches and restoring areas that have already been cleared but are currently degraded or otherwise underutilized.

But, these “land-sparing” benefits (i.e. avoided deforestation via productivity gains) resulting from improvements in pasture quality, herd management, and feedlot finishing, are not necessarily guaranteed, even if these practices are fully implemented. This is a critical point that is commonly overlooked. It is important to recognize that if these practices are not coupled with effective governance systems and viable market incentives, they can potentially lead to a suite of unintended and very undesirable outcomes.

These potential backfire scenarios, also referred to as “rebound effects”, actually result in increased resource consumption, rather than the desired conservation outcomes. There are many localized on-ranch examples of this, but rebound effects can also materialize at much larger scales and with much greater consequences, especially when they are intertwined with broader land-use dynamics. For example, a significant increase in feedlot finishing in Brazil would likely increase demand for soy and maize, the primary feed inputs in feedlot systems. The use of optimized feed could help bring cattle to slaughter weight faster, a positive outcome, but what if this additional demand for soy and maize increases pressure for more agricultural land and ends up contributing to higher rates of deforestation? In addition, productivity gains could increase ranchers’ profitability, another positive outcome, but what if those profits are re-invested into clearing more forest to further expand their operations? If these backfire scenarios played out on a large scale, they would have very serious implications–not only for Brazil, but for the entire planet.

So how do we ensure this doesn’t happen? In general, efforts aimed at advancing intensification and promoting productivity gains should be linked to effective governance mechanisms and market incentives to help mitigate (or eliminate) potential rebound effects. As is being pursued in the case of Brazil, incentives to encourage moderate intensification practices should be linked with company commitments to source only deforestation-free commodities as well as government policies that foster deforestation-free production. This coupled approach will help maximize social, economic, and environmental outcomes, and also produce additional synergies and benefits that could extend well beyond the cattle sector.