December 10, 2013

Experimenting with Certification: Towards a Sustainable Livestock Sector in Brazil

Peter Newton, International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research Network, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan

Last week’s guest authors honed in on issues of partnership, support, and reducing risk within supply chains. Major commodities such as soy and palm oil formed the basis of these discussions, but one of the major contributors to land cover change and degradation was largely absent – cattle. Today’s author, Peter Newton, a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Michigan, explores the potential for a sustainable certification program to scale up and achieve impact in the cattle sector of Brazil. He recently co-authored the CGIAR research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) working paper that informs today’s post.

Some 22% of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil are associated with land-use change and deforestation, and cattle-ranching is a key driver of deforestation in the country. Reducing the impact of beef production on forest landscapes is therefore a national and global imperative. Part of the solution is to encourage lower consumption of beef in Brazil and abroad, but this strategy must be complemented by initiatives that promote more sustainable cattle-ranching practices. Voluntary certification programs have been developed to improve the sustainability of production for many agricultural commodities, including palm oil, biofuels, and soy. But until recently, no certification program promoted environmental sustainability in the cattle sector. In 2011, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) launched the world’s first program to fill this niche, and has since worked with farmers, slaughterhouses, and retailers in the cattle supply chain to implement and expand the program in Brazil.

Currently, three farms and three slaughterhouses have been certified by the SAN cattle program. A relatively meagre achievement, you might think, given the enormity of the cattle sector in Brazil. In one sense, you’d be right. Indeed, the program has been critiqued as having limited relevance in the Brazilian context, principally because the changes needed to meet the expectations of the certification criteria are so far beyond the current capacity of the majority of cattle producers. But in another sense, this certification program has already made significant contributions towards improved sustainability of the cattle sector in Brazil. Let me explain.

First, the SAN cattle certification program has served as a proof-of-concept. That is, it has demonstrated the viability of certifying cattle production – something previously doubted to be possible. While the number of certified farms is small, the program has certified at least one unit at every stage in the supply chain: from the breeding farm, to the fattening farm, to the slaughterhouse. And certified beef, displaying the Rainforest Alliance label, is being sold in Brazilian supermarkets.

Second, because the program criteria are more rigorous and stringent than those of any existing sustainability initiative in Brazil, the program effectively ‘raises the bar’ for sustainability in the cattle sector. Sustainability is difficult to define, but setting a higher benchmark may spur producers to improve their practices in order to adjust to the shifting goalposts.

And third, the sale of certified beef has created a niche market and added new incentives for farmers and slaughterhouses. Certified beef is sold for a small price premium. If some of this premium trickles down to the farmer, then there is a direct financial benefit to becoming certified. Further, the presence of labeled products on supermarket shelves may affect consumer consciousness of sustainability issues.

All of this is to say that perhaps there is more than one way to measure the impacts of a new sustainability initiative. Metrics of avoided deforestation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are clearly important. But there are also less quantifiable considerations, based on altered perspectives about what is achievable; new definitions of what sustainability means; new incentives for improved practices; and increased awareness among consumers of the sustainability choices open to them. These might all be equally important steps towards achieving environmental goals in tropical forest landscapes.

Read More:
Alves-Pinto, H., P. Newton, and L. Pinto. 2013. Certifying Sustainability: Opportunities and Challenges for the Cattle Supply Chain in Brazil. CCAFS Working Paper no.57.

Beefing up sustainable agriculture production in Brazil – By Cecilia Schubert, CCAFS Blog

Newton, P., A. Agrawal, and L. Wollenberg. 2013. Enhancing Sustainability of Commodity Supply Chains in Tropical Forest and Agricultural Landscapes. Global Environmental Change 23(6): 1761-1772.

Featured Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS

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