How an American company that sells meat drives Amazon deforestation

Cattle graze on land recently burned and deforested by ranchers near Novo Progresso, Pará state, Brazil (AP Photo/André Penner, file) (Andre Penner/)

As the income of the Chinese population has increased over the past decade, so has the country’s appetite for beef. It is no longer out of reach of the middle class, so now It sizzles in homemade woks and restaurant kitchens.

China has become the world’s largest importer of beef and Brazil is the largest supplier to the Chinese, according to data from the United Nations trading platform Comtrade. More beef is moved from the South American country to China than between any other pair of nations in the world.

But the Brazilian livestock industry is a strong driver of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The data analysis carried out by AP and the Rainforest Research Network, a nonprofit information consortium, found that a little-known American company is among the key suppliers and distributors fueling China’s beef hunger…and deforestation of the Amazon that this causes.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.  CREDIT Photo courtesy Wake Forest University USAGE RESTRICTIONS
Deforestation in the Amazon

The Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world, It plays a critical role in the global climate by absorbing carbon emissions. A new study published this week in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences linked the deforestation of that gigantic jungle to warmer regional temperatures.

Parker-Migliorini International, based in Salt Lake City and better known as PMI Foods, has been a major beneficiary of the beef trade between Brazil and China. PMI has shipped more than $1.7 billion worth of Brazilian beef over the past decade, more than 95% of it to China, according to data from Panjiva, a company that uses customs records to track international trade. Over the past decade, Chinese beef imports have increased sixfold, UN Comtrade data shows, and PMI Foods has helped meet growing Chinese demand.

In its role as an intermediary, the activity of PMI – one of the main importers of Brazilian beef to China – allows us to see how this growing international trade drives deforestation.

Holly Gibbs, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies land-use changes related to the beef industry, says PMI has contributed to the destruction of the Amazon because it sources meat from companies that buy cattle raised on deforested lands.

Illegally cut logs in the Amazon (Reuters)
Logs illegally cut in the Amazon (Reuters) (Paulo Santos/)

Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost more than 10,360 square kilometers of tropical rainforestthe equivalent of nearly 3,000 football fields each day, according to a January report from Imazon, a Brazilian research group that uses satellite monitoring to track deforestation.

More than two-thirds of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon has been converted into livestock grazing areas, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

PMI sources more of its Brazilian beef from JBS SA—a giant meat processor based in Sao Paulo—than from any other supplier. In a series of reports published between 2018 and 2023, Brazilian prosecutors determined that JBS purchased massive quantities of livestock raised on illegally deforested land. Last December, prosecutors discovered that JBS had acquired more than 85,000 cows from farms that were involved in illegal deforestation in Pará, one of the nine states of the Brazilian Amazon. In their most recent report, published on October 26, they found that JBS had substantially lower, but still significant, purchasing rates from rural farms involved in violations of environmental laws in four Amazon states.

“There is no doubt that PMI Foods is profiting from the deforestation of the Amazon,” Gibbs said. “They are also helping to drive that deforestation by continuing to pay into that system.”

The-Brazilian-state-of-Amazonas-declared-an-environmental-emergency-due to-fires
A forest fire to clear the forest (MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP) (MICHAEL DANTAS/)

In an email, a PMI spokesperson said that “in a world where hunger, malnutrition and acute food insecurity are a global concern, PMI is focused on feeding millions of people” around the planet, including providing meals for refugees.

PMI said it is working to strengthen the environmental practices of its beef operations. “While our absolute top priority is feeding people, we remain committed to continually improving sustainability across the beef value chain,” the spokesperson said.

PMI Foods is a $3 billion global company that buys and sells more than 725.7 million kilograms of beef, pork, chicken, seafood and eggs each year. Over the past decade, PMI Foods shipped more than $616 million of JBS Brazilian beef, nearly double that of any other supplier, shipping records show.

A deforested area in Para, Brazil (REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino)
A deforested area in Para, Brazil (REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino) (UESLEI MARCELINO/)

JBS, in turn, purchased a significant portion of its cattle from ranches established on land illegally deforested, Brazilian prosecutors found. These properties represented 15% of JBS’s livestock supply in the Amazon state of Pará from 2019 to 2020, according to an audit carried out by the prosecutor’s office last December. The following year, the company’s purchases from properties linked to violations of environmental laws fell to 6% of its supply in four Amazon states, prosecutors found in an audit published in October.

The Brazilian authorities have investigated and fined to JBS regarding its purchases of livestock from illegal farms, but these are independent of the audits, which focus on improving the company’s practices.

JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, claims it has fixed problems identified in previous audits by prosecutors. In a statement, the company said it has a “zero tolerance policy for illegal deforestation” in its supply chains, and that it is adopting blockchain technology to include vetting of indirect suppliers by 2025.

However, just last fall JBS admitted to making a large-scale purchase of cattle raised on illegally deforested land. Following an investigation by Repórter Brasil, a collaborator of the Tropical Forest Research Network, JBS acknowledged that it had illegally purchased nearly 9,000 heads of cattle from a rancher whom Brazilian authorities have described as “one of those who deforest the most in the country.” ”. The rancher, Chaules Volban Pozzebon, is now serving a 70-year prison sentence for crimes including leading a criminal gang.

PMI also buys in large volumes from Marfrig—Brazil’s second-largest meat processor—which has also been singled out in reports by environmental groups and media outlets that say it bought cattle from ranches that were involved in illegal deforestation. In February 2022, the Inter-American Development Bank did not provide a $200 million loan to Marfrig amid criticism of the company’s environmental record. In September, Swiss multinational Nestlé removed Marfrig as a beef supplier in Brazil following media reports that Marfrig had purchased cattle raised on land taken from indigenous people.

Marfrig said in an email that the ranch cited in last year’s reports was on land that had not yet been designated protected indigenous territory. Marfrig faced no legal sanctions in connection with the case. The company said it has a “rigorous livestock sourcing policy” that uses satellite monitoring to avoid suppliers linked to deforestation.

When asked about its main suppliers — JBS and Marfrig — buying livestock raised on deforested or illegally confiscated land, PMI said it requires its suppliers to follow local laws, and that it relies on government environmental agencies in Brazil and others. places to enforce them. “PMI relies on the assurances set forth in its suppliers’ sustainability policies,” a company spokesperson said in an email.

For its part, Brazil’s Environment Ministry said that independent audits have shown that Major meat processors still purchase significant quantities of cattle raised on deforested land through their indirect suppliers.

“The persistence of these cases shows that the companies’ systems are defective and that there is not enough effort to prevent illegal purchases,” the ministry said in a statement.

The FBI investigation

PMI Foods has previously come under scrutiny by US authorities for its shipments to China.

Between 2008 and 2011, Parker International, PMI’s predecessor and co-creator of PMI Foods, earned more than $289 million in revenue from illegal shipments of beef to China, accounting for the majority of U.S.-origin sales to that country. , according to a spreadsheet produced by an informant for FBI investigators.

“They were willing to break the laws,” whistleblower Brandon Barrick said in a 2022 interview, referring to his time working at PMI. “They were willing to do whatever it took to make money for themselves.”

In spring 2014, Parker International pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement to U.S. authorities about the destination of its beef exports and paid a $1 million fine.

In an email, PMI said it had put “the entire episode behind it” nine years ago and emphasized that Parker International pleaded guilty only to making a false statement. “PMI was never charged with any crime for its export operations,” said Mark Gaylord, the company’s attorney.

Increase in beef in China

Over the past decade, Chinese imports of beef from Brazil have risen from $1.3 billion in 2013 to more than $8 billion in 2022, according to U.N. Comtrade data.

PMI has been a major player in fueling that growing market. In 2017, the company was the second-largest importer of Brazilian beef to China, according to a 2020 report by Trase, a research group that studies commodity supply chains.

As Brazil became China’s largest supplier, livestock production increased. Beijing imposes relatively few environmental demands on its beef importersmeaning suppliers who need land for livestock may be tempted to deforest, said Gibbs, the University of Wisconsin geography professor.

“As demand for beef increases in China, so does pressure on the tropical rainforest,” he added.

Daniel Azeredo, a Brazilian federal prosecutor who has led a crackdown on illegal deforestation in the beef industry, said companies must ensure that products from the Amazon region do not come from illegally deforested land.

“Everyone who participates in the trade of products that come from the Amazon must be able to transparently determine the origin of the products,” Azeredo added.

In response to questions about whether it had raised concerns about deforestation with JBS or other suppliers, PMI Foods said it “maintains discussions with our partners, vendors and suppliers, including JBS, regarding always honing best practices towards the environment and The sustainability”.

Middlemen evade scrutiny

As a middleman rather than a company that raises animals or processes meat, PMI’s role in deforestation has been little examined.

PMI’s reliance on JBS is not unusual among food companies. While a handful of European retailers have abandoned JBS beef products in recent years due to concerns about deforestation, prominent American brands such as Kroger and Albertsons, Safeway’s parent company, still buy their beef from it.

Albertsons confirmed it sources beef from JBS, but said it’s only a small amount. Kroger did not respond to inquiries, but its online store includes JBS beef products.

JBS, Marfrig and other major beef producers have signed commitments to work against illegal deforestation. But unlike most major meat processors and commodity traders, PMI has not signed up to agreements to fight deforestation, such as the New York Declaration on Forests, in which those who do agree to achieve goals that include eliminating forest destruction by 2030.

Two months after initial consultations on its environmental policies for this article, PMI said it would join industry efforts to combat deforestation.

“We are now proud to partner with One Tree Planted, Green Business Bureau and the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef,” the company said last November. It has since planted 10,000 trees in the Amazon, the company added, part of a longer-term plan to plant one million trees.

PMI has not yet signed a commitment against tropical rainforest destruction, but last month said it was considering doing so. “We are open to compromise and are currently working on these issues,” he said.

Gibbs, the University of Wisconsin professor, said that because PMI and other middlemen have such huge purchasing power, “they need to come to the table” to help stop deforestation.

Until now, meat intermediaries have been “completely ignored,” he added, which has allowed it to reach consumers’ tables without meeting environmental standards strict enough to protect the Amazon.

Azeredo, the Brazilian prosecutor, emphasized that not only meat processors, but all companies in the beef and leather industries share the obligation to avoid buying from suppliers that violate environmental laws.

“The entire industry that buys these animals, that sells leather or meat, must ensure that it does not allow (the acquisition of) products from areas where there is illegal deforestation,” Azeredo said.

(With information from AP)