Cattle ranching and conservation are not mutually exclusive

After the United States, Brazil takes the silver medal for beef production. More than 200 million cattle graze on more than 494 million acres of Brazilian pasture, an area that is roughly equal to one quarter of the continental United States. And with cows comes the double-whammy of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

Normally, forests are capable of capturing some of the greenhouse gas output of human industry, at least partially preventing the emissions from contributing to climate change. But as more forests are cleared to make way for more beef, not only do greenhouse gas emission increase, but those forests’ ability to suck up those emissions also becomes severely impaired.

As economies grow in the developing world – including in Brazil – more people will be able to afford more meat, even further growing the beef industry. Brazil already has had the largest overall loss of forest of any country over the last two decades, 1990-2010. As ranchers need more pasture for cattle, forests become destroyed. (Though it should be noted that there are other factors also responsible for deforestation, like mining and logging, too.) The current methods of cattle farming are simply unsustainable in a world already becoming too hot.

A group of researchers led by Avery S. Cohn of Tufts University wondered whether changes in Brazilian cattle ranching policies could mitigate the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions while also preventing further deforestation. To find out, they used an economic model to explore the possible consequences of two policies. The first is a tax on ranchers who use the current, less sustainable practice for cattle farming, and the second is a subsidy for ranchers who adopted a “semi-intensive alternative cattle ranching production system.”

By relying primarily on a combination of alternative pasture and herd management practices and changes in animal diets, ranchers can more than double their output on the same amount of land, compared to conventional management practices. In such a system, the part of the pasture where animals graze is rotated allowing grasses time to recover, higher-quality grasses are planted more frequently, and fertilizer and lime are used to allow the grasses to take up more nutrients from the soil. Together, these practices allow the cows to gain better nutrition from an equivalent amount of food intake, meaning that there is less greenhouse gas produced for each pound of mass that the cow gains.

In areas of Brazil where these alternative policies have already been implemented, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced, and more cattle have been raised without tempting ranchers to chop down more trees to make space for more pasture.

Cohn and colleagues found that implementing either a tax, or a subsidy, or both, would indeed work to reduce emissions and deforestation without any concomitant decrease in cattle production. It’s a win-win-win situation.

If such a policy were enacted, Brazil’s rate of deforestation could be cut by half, and almost a quarter of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated. And that’s even if the rest of the world does nothing to mitigate their own contributions to climate change.

Two possible downsides of such a policy, though, is that ranchers might simply move their cattle production elsewhere (due to the tax), or that the demand for beef might increase (thanks to the subsidy, which increases output, and therefore lowers prices). However, the researchers still say that the benefits still outweigh these possible negative consequences. “The [greenhouse gas] benefits would be roughly ten times greater than the emissions triggered by policies stemming from increased cattle production abroad and increased beef consumption,” they write.

Often, it is thought that economies in the developing world have to make tough compromises, losing out on important opportunities for development in order to reduce their emissions. This research shows that such a compromise may not be necessary, at least for the cattle industry in Brazil. The nation can both grow its economy as well as curb its emissions, simply by taking a more ecological, comprehensive approach to their land management. – Jason G. Goldman | 14 May 2014

Source: Cohn A.S., Mosnier A., Havlik P., Valin H., Herrero M., Schmid E., O’Hare M. & Obersteiner M. Cattle ranching intensification in Brazil can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by sparing land from deforestation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI:

Header image: Cattle in Sao Paulo, Brazil; AFNR /