Grocery Store Grass Fed, and Amazon Deforestation

I’ve spoken with people who prioritize purchasing American grass fed beef specifically to avoid some of the terrible problems associated with Brazilian deforestation: all the illegal cutting, burning, and depopulation involved in adding cattle grazing acreage in the Amazon. By purchasing USA-sourced grass fed beef, they want to find an alternative to this destruction. And this approach seems like it should work. But it doesn’t always pan out that way.

Chances are good, if you’ve eaten grass fed beef from a restaurant or from a grocery store, that you’ve bought Grass Run Farms beef. Most of their beef is sold to food service businesses and grocery distribution. They also market their products online for direct-to-home delivery, making them one of the better known brands in the American grass fed marketplace. Their slogan is “Grass Fed Beef, Born, Pasture-Raised, and Harvested in the USA”. I’m all for grass fed beef, and I’m all for domestic production.

But, the catch… I believe there’s a significant tie-in between Grass Run Farms beef and illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Like other brands, Grass Run Farms labels itself with the word “farm” in the name. But they are not a farm in any true sense of the word. They are actually a subsidiary of the world’s largest meat processor, JBS. JBS started out as a small Brazilian butcher business, but it has morphed into a world-dominating superpower, buying up companies around the world with dizzying speed. In the United States, they’ve acquired giants such as Swift Foods, Smithfield’s beef division, Cargill’s pork division, and they own controlling shares in other companies like Pilgrim’s Pride. And, to cover all the bases, they own plant-based alt-meat company Planterra Foods, makers of Ozo products.

And herein lies the problem: JBS has a well-documented pattern of political corruption, shameless food tampering, and persistent environmental destruction.

An Ugly History

Let’s discuss a few of the most egregious items associated with JBS from the past fifteen years. I’ll supply links to reporting for each item, so you can be assured I’m not just making this up.

In 2017 the owners admitted they bribed 1,800 Brazilian officials in exchange for government backed loans. Flush with funding from the illegally-obtained loans, they bought their way into their US-based business holdings.

JBS is also notorious for a scheme to blend rotten meat with additives, passing it off as wholesome and then exporting it around the world.

Later, they were accused of bribing the Brazilian president Michel Temer.

This year they’ve settled two US lawsuits, one for chicken price fixing and another for doing the same with pork. Then this summer the Justice Department landed another antitrust lawsuit on them again.

Never squeamish, they have been accused of buying their cattle from ranches that use slave labor. And buying cattle from ranchers that massacred squatters. And selling contaminated container loads of chicken to Europe (and when European regulators rejected some of the loads, shipping the condemned chicken back home and selling it to Brazilians).

Stripping the Amazon

The latest outrage for JBS is a new report demonstrating that they are increasing the number of cattle they purchase from illegally cleared Amazon lands. In 2020, 301,000 cattle came from “irregular” ranches in the Amazon. These are ranches operating on land that is not set aside for clearcutting and burning. These ranches are often built on land seized from indigenous inhabitants who are ejected without recourse.

Despite talk about their commitment to clean up their act, they are doubling down on duplicity. The number of cattle puchased from these sources last year is a significant increase from previous years. Investigations shows that JBS buys these illegal cattle through schemes that amount to cattle laundering. “Dirty” cows get sold to an intermediary with a legitimate feedlot, and then those cows are passed on as “clean” into the JBS slaughterhouses.

As past audits have flagged irregularities, JBS made commitments to change its ways. But this rapid rise in illegal cattle tells us more about what they are really doing. They are buying whatever makes them the most money.

I found it especially telling that in response to criticism, they committed the equivalent of $908,265 to clean up their supply chain. But that amounts to $3 per beefer. How much change are they going to make for $3? That works out to a cost of a half penny per pound of carcass weight as restitution. That’s absurd. And insulting.

The Sins of the Father

In its defense, one might note that Grass Run Farms is a subsidiary of JBS, and that as such it can’t be accused of the parent company’s sins. Perhaps, if we wish to extend generosity, we could imagine that there exists a moral firewall between the two companies, that Grass Run Farms is incorruptible, and that the dirty dealing at JBS never diffuses across the membrane boundary between the two businesses.

For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Grass Run Farms is not responsible for JBS’ litany of misdeeds. In fact, let’s go so far as to say that they are the most upright folks imaginable. We still should consider the issue of the complicity of sales dollars. High-value sales of grass fed beef in the US allow JBS to continue its worst behaviors back in the Amazon. This is not a company that has stumbled here and there. This is a company that consistently chooses profit over any kind of integrity. Our purchases of their 100% domestically produced beef today bankroll the environmental and social destruction in Brazil tomorrow. This is uncomfortable, but incontrovertible. Profits from Grass Run Farms serve to enrich JBS, and JBS has a consistent history of bad acting.

If Somali pirates started a side-line brand producing exquisite artisanal goat cheeses while keeping the piracy gig going, or if my neighborhood fentanyl dealer also spent Saturdays at the craft fair making hand-knitted sweaters with local wool, I’d still have a moral problem in doing business with criminals. I don’t see much difference in analogy there to what is happening with domestic “clean” beef sales providing cover for dirty deeds, done dirt cheap.

It was true back in 1906, and baby, it’s back.

Choosing Better

The underlying message in all this is that by blindly purchasing products based on cleverly-worded marketing campaigns, we can unwittingly contribute to suffering and destruction. To the extent that we are ignorant about our purchases, we must realize that we trade convenience for complicity. But we don’t need to keep doing that. We can do better.

By buying our food from farmers within our own local food production regions, we can ensure that the effects of our purchases are contained to the area in which we live. For instance, if our local farmers are either polluting our water or purifying our water, that’s the water we’ll be drinking. We might feel more inclined to be careful about it. We aren’t externalizing the problem on people in other continents. This kind of regionalism makes us responsible for the circumstances around us.

Local purchases are traceable, knowable. My customers can visit my farm or look at the candid shots on our farm’s Instagram account. They can call and talk directly to me. It is easy to verify whether or not I’m being real about what is happening here at Wrong Direction Farm. And that isn’t unique to my farm. It is a built-in protection for anyone buying directly from a farmer. This holds true for beef, broccoli, or blueberries.

Find your farmer. Learn about their work, what they produce, why they produce it, what struggles they have, what they’ve learned. Our family would love to be your farmer, but we’re just one small farm. There are lots of farmers out there. Find the farmers that work well with you, and then participate in building up your local agriculture. We can do better if we work together.

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