In 2007, the World Bank pledged $90 million to a company leading one of the world's most ecologically destructive industries. Cattle ranching in Brazil has created the single greatest threat to the Amazon rainforest, which is treasured for its biodiversity as well for its role in fighting climate change by acting as a carbon sink. Yet the International Finance Corporation, the Bank's private lending arm, agreed to loan $90 million to Bertin, a company it recognizes as "the leading integrated beef and hide processor in Brazil, with slaughtering capacity of about 5,400 heads per day."
According to a Greenpeace report, "Slaughtering the Amazon," released earlier this month (two-minute summary video here), Brazil's cattle sector "is the largest driver of deforestation in the world, responsible for one in every eight hectares destroyed globally." Less than two weeks after the report was published, the IFC reneged on the Bertin deal, though it did not publicly cite environmental impact as the reason--it did, however, announce a new Sustainable Beef Working Group.
Whatever that means.
(According to the IFC, it means this: "the industry's only multi stakeholder forum to develop and promote implementation of sustainable practices. The Group consists of Brazil's major beef processors, large purchasers of beef, financiers, and prominent NGOs." No explanation though, of how the "large purchasers of beef" plan to become sustainable.)
Before the loan was approved, a World Bank auditor warned, "[Bertin's Maraba slaughterhouse expansion] project poses a grave risk to the environment and to the Bank's reputation." Yet the project went ahead, intended to expand Bertin's facilities and increase production by 5,000 cows per day--despite multiple surveys, including by the World Bank itself, showing that cattle ranching already occupies 80 percent of the deforested land in the Amazon. The loan flew in the face (although not for the first time) of a 2005 pledge by the Bank to reduce deforestation by ten percent by 2010.
Brazil produced one of every three tons of beef traded internationally in 2008, and the government expects to double that amount by 2018. Leather represents a quarter of the country's $6.9 billion cattle industry, which means not only deforested areas for raising and slaughtering cows, but also the release of toxic chemicals from the tanning process into the environment, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and corrosive acids--contaminating nearby waterways and harming local populations.
In withdrawing its funding for Bertin, the IFC will withhold the remaining $30 million installment and is expected to ask for an early return on the first $60 million. But the money has already been invested, and Bertin has not had much trouble expanding its global reach. According to the Greenpeace report, which is based on three years of undercover investigation, Bertin supplies cow by-products (does glycerin sound familiar?) directly to Unilever, Colgate Palmolive, and Johnson & Johnson for various health, beauty, and cleaning products. Brazil supplies 40 percent of the processed beef consumed in the U.K. And Bertin leather can be traced directly to customers from U.S. military forces (as well as British, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish) to companies like Nike, Adidas, BMW, Ford, Honda, Wal-mart, Ikea, and... the list goes on.
So do the reasons not to eat beef. For starters: the trees still standing in the Amazon rainforest.