Planet Protector News: Cattle Ranching and Planet Destruction

Updated: Feb 12


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As Planet Protectors, we must consider the effects of cattle ranch operations on our planet. Is cattle ranching sustainable? How does cattle ranching operations harm our planet? As environmental advocates, what can we do about it? Here, I will address some of the issues that our environment faces due to cattle ranch operations and how Planet Protectors can step and help save our planet.



Brazil is located in the rain forested areas of South America. This region is becoming one of the largest and fastest growing tropical growing agricultural areas in the world. Cattle ranch operations in Brazil devastate the land, resources, and native people because in order for these large-scale farms to operate, huge tracts of rainforest must be cut down so that cattle can graze. Ranchers graze their cattle in one location until the land cannot support any more vegetation. Then, they simply move on to another are, cut down the forest, and begin the process all over again. Clearing the land for cattle ranch operations results in “the destruction of 165 pounds of living matter, which typically includes 100 insect species, 20 to 30 different plant species, and tens of bird, mammal, and reptile species.”[1] Much of the beef is exported to developed countries in order to inexpensively meet the high demand for fast food. However, the environmental and social costs for the inexpensive beef are high. For example, “[a] single quarter-pound hamburger imported from Latin America causes the clearing of six square yards of rain forest.”[2]


There are many reasons why some people in developed countries do not think they should participate in changing the cattle industry in Brazil. First, many people are often unaware of the origin of their hamburger and of the devastation caused in order to produce the hamburger. Second, people in developed countries are often unwilling to support efforts to slow or change Brazil’s cattle ranch industry because it is thought that the cattle operations are run by small farmers who simply are trying to make a living. Thus, developed nations have no right to influence a poor country’s agricultural techniques when in doing so would result in increased poverty. Finally, many feel that they should not tell developing countries not to destroy their natural resources when that is exactly what developed countries did in the past in order to increase their own economic status.


Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

Rainforests are different than other ecosystems, and, once destroyed the land often cannot be restored back to its original state or even used for any other purpose. Accordingly, although some developed countries were able to exploit their natural resources in order to promote financial gain, these techniques did not completely devastate the land for all future uses. Thus, in Brazil the opposite is true. The cattle industry may provide some short-term gains for a limited number of people, but in the long run, the country will likely end up in a worse economic position than what it is in now. Further, eighty percent of the cattle ranch industries in Brazil are owned and operated by large-scale companies, where only a small number of people substantially profit.[3]  The poor Brazilian is harmed further by being forced into slavery by these large scale operations. “The workers are taken on by a gato, or gangmaster, usually to clear areas of the jungle which are then claimed, and eventually become part of huge cattle farms, after all the timber has been stripped out.”[4]  It is estimated that “10,000 of a possible national total of about 25,000 people were being forced to work in this inhuman way.”[5]  Accordingly, changes in Brazil’s cattle ranch industry will not make the poor farmer go hungry. Instead, by encouraging changes to sustainable techniques and forestry uses, many people will have the means to support themselves and their families.


Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

Cattle ranch operations are the leading cause of Brazilian rainforest deforestation; using the land in such a way results in the destruction of all future land uses and interferes with global ecological functions. “The accumulated area of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose from 

41.5 million hectares in 1990 to 58.7 million hectares in 2000. In just ten years the country lost an area of forest twice the size of Portugal or the size of Uruguay.”[6] The effects of large scale deforestation for cattle ranches are abundant and felt globally.


The rainforest is different than other ecosystems so when this unique ecosystem is disturbed, ecological processes are altered and restoration efforts are difficult and very expensive.


First, deforestation of the rainforest upsets the carbon dioxide and oxygen cycle, increases soil erosion, results in contaminated water, and thousands of plants and animals die. “Carbon dioxide released worldwide from the burning of rainforests adds about twenty percent to amounts released from fossil fuel combustion.”[7] Further, “the Amazon annually produces fifty percent of the oxygen added to the atmosphere and consumes about ten percent of its gaseous carbon through photosynthesis.”[8] Thus, the destruction of the rainforest effects the global ecological cycles. Second, rainforest soil is different than other soils because it only contains a thin top layer of nutrient rich soil that is generated from the decomposition of fallen vegetation.[9]  Consequently, after three to five years of cattle grazing, the soil cannot support any growing flora.[10] For example, “[n]inety percent of the new cattle ranches operate less than eight years before they deplete the soil and leave abandoned scrub land.”[11]  Further, one observed stated that “[a]s a result, within a few years of grazing and the creation of cattle pasture, the ground hardens into extensive rock-like sheets, similar to a desert, causing the soil to be irretrievably lost for the purpose of crop production.”[12]


The problem is not solved after the cattle move out of an area because rainforests cannot simply be replanted or restored to replicate its original state.


The most commonly used technique for deforestation is slash and burn agriculture but this technique is very destructive and is not sustainable for future uses of the land.[13] Self-restoration is difficult, if not impossible, for slash and burn agriculture areas.[14] After cattle are moved out of an area, little can be done to restore it because often the land has been so severely depleted of nutrients and much of the soil has been lost due to runoff and wind currents. Accordingly, current cattle ranch techniques devastate the land, ecosystem, and destroy future uses the land.


The Hamburger Connection


The hamburger connection, a phrase set forth by Norman Myers, “described how the rapid growth of beef exports from Central America to fast food chains in the United States was driving deforestation.”[15]  Because of the developed countries increased demand for beef, “Brazilian beef consumption quadrupled between 1972 and 1997.”[16]  There are various reasons behind the increased beef consumption in the United States. Increased income, human population, and fast food restaurants all contribute to the rise in beef production. Another force driving increased beef consumption is the currency devaluation. Brazilian beef is inexpensive compared to other beef because of the severe devaluation of Brazil’s currency.[17]  Finally, in the past Brazil experienced problems with foot and mouth disease, but, this is no longer the case. Thus, developed countries increased their reliance on Brazilian beef.[18] 

There are many reasons why developed countries rely on Brazil for their beef. However, it is clear that the benefits of fast and inexpensive hamburgers do not outweigh the costs of a devastated rainforest. Accordingly, something must be done to change the current use of the forest and the cattle ranch techniques in Brazil.


Deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest seems distinct and different from tuna fishing in the United States but the two are related. The primary reason why fishing companies changed their tuna fishing techniques in order to reduce dolphin by catch was because of public outcry and pressure put on fishing companies due to the large amount of dolphin by-catch.[19] “Consumer awareness and activism spread quickly … and labels were soon seen on tuna products ensuring the contents were produced dolphin-safe.”[20] As a result of public concern, the Untied States fishing industry reduced the number of dolphins killed due to tuna fishing by at least 10,000 per year.[21]  A similar technique is applicable to deforestation of the rainforest for cattle ranch operations. Stamping beef exports from Brazil as rainforest friendly may encourage more people to purchase the environmentally friendly alternative.[22] As with the tuna example, when people become aware of the consequences of their actions, they are often willing to change.


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However, there are several problems with a labeling plan. First, does the United States have the right to set forth regulations that may substantially harm Brazil’s cattle ranch operations, and if so, what authority does the United States have to set forth such a law? Under the commerce clause of the Constitution, “congress has the power to regulate international commerce.”[23]  Thus, the commerce clause gives Congress the power to enact laws that interferes with commerce. Further, the United States can enter into international treaties with Brazil, which may include incentives for Brazil to use environmentally sound agriculture techniques. One example of a law passed in the United States that affected Brazil’s economy is the Foreign Assistance Act of 1986 that “was designed to prevent the US from participating in acts which destroy rainforests such as the Brazilian Amazon.”[24]


Finally, Brazil may benefit economically by providing an option for organic and environmentally friendly beef options because they can charge more for such an option. Increasingly numbers of people are concerned about their personal environmental choices. Thus, if given a choice, people may choose to pay more for organic and environmentally friendly beef.


Yet another environmental sustainability problem arises under the labeling plan, which includes the not in my backyard syndrome. The rainforest is often far away from many countries and many people will never visit a rainforest, thus, people will be less likely to be concerned about a problem that is so far away and does not appear to directly affect them. Achieving consumer awareness may also prove to be difficult and costly.[25]  Consumers may simply switch to beef that originates in other countries but that beef may have been produced using environmentally destructive techniques as well. The plan is not an international plan and would only be applicable to the country that chose to adopt it even though many developed countries import beef from Brazil. Although there are many problems with a labeling plan, it does have the potential to create a wide scale change in cattle grazing techniques in Brazil. If consumer awareness is achieved and public outcry is substantial enough, than people may choose to make more environmentally friendly beef choices. Moreover, this may have a trickling effect, and other developed countries will likely also promote changes in beef imports. Finally, Brazil will ultimately benefit from this because the forest will still be able to be used for other purposes and they will be able to increase the price for environmentally friendly beef options. Although there are some difficulties with a labeling plan for beef, it does have the potential to create wide scale changes for the cattle ranching industry in Brazil.


What Can We Do As Planet Protectors



Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash

The best choice Planet Protectors can do to help save our planet is to become vegetarian or vegan


Try incorporating a vegetarian or vegan meal once a week and gradually increase the number of days you eat a plant based diet. Another alternative is to purchase meat from a local farmer. Educate yourself on their farming practices and if they humanely raise and slaughter the animal. Don’t purchase food from fast food chains. They are known for destructive planet practices and are notorious for environmental harm. How are you helping save our planet? Feel free to list your Planet Protector ideas in the comments below. I would love to see how you are helping make our planet a better place!

[1] Robert H. Smith, Livestock Production: the Unsustainable Environmental and Economic Effects of an Industry out of Control, 4 Buff. Envtl. L.J. 45, 57 (1996).

[2] Smith, supra note 1 at 57.

[3] Project Amazonia: Solutions-International Solution for Sustainable Ranching at http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2006/final/solutions/sols_ran_sol.html.

[4] Nick Caistor, Brazil’s ‘slave’ ranch workers, BBC News at http://www.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/americas/4536085.stm.

[5] Caistor, supra note 4.

[6] David Kalmowitz et al., Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction, Center for International Forestry Research at http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/publications/pdf_files/media/Amazon.pdf.

[7] Henry W. McGee, Jr. et al., The Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon: Law Politics, and International Cooperation, 21 U. Miami Inter-Am. L. Rev. 513,520 (1990).

[8] McGee et al., supra note 7 at 520.

[9] Smith, supra note 1 at 55.

[10] David C. Short, The Jurisprudence of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: A Law, Science, and Policy Explication of Certain Aspects of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 8 J. Nat. Resources & Envtl. L. 229, 282 (1992).

[11] Short, supra note 10 at 282.

[12] Smith, supra note 1 at 55.

[13] Project Amazonia: Solutions – International Solution for Sustainable Ranching, supra note 3.

[14] Project Amazonia: Solutions-International Solution for Sustainable Ranching supra note 3.

[15] Kalmowitz et al., supra note 6.

[16] Kalmowitz et al., supra note 6.

[17] Kalmowitz et al., supra note 6.

[18] Kalmowitz et al., supra note 6.

[19] Susan C. Alker, The Marine Mammal Protection Act: Refocusing the Approach to Conservation, 44 UCLA L. Rev. 527, 557 (1996).

[20] Project Amazonia: Solutions – International Solution for Sustainable Ranching supra note 3.

[21] Alker, supra note 19 at 557.

[22] Project Amazonia: Solutions – International Solution for Sustainable Ranching supra note 3.

[23] Jacqueline Klosek, The Destruction of the Brazilian Amazon: An International Problem, 6 Cardozo J. Int’l & Comp. L. 119, 141 (1998).

[24] Klosek, supra note 23 at 141.

[25] Project Amazonia: Solutions – International Solution for Sustainable Ranching supra note 3.


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