WASHINGTON — The US Senate Finance Committee recently held a hearing regarding cattle supply chains and deforestation of the Amazon, particularly examining multinational meat company JBS.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) led the committee during a two-year investigation of this issue and the ongoing environmental impact of JBS.

“Going back years, JBS has made promises that it would clean up its act when it comes to deforestation,” Wyden said. “Most recently, it said it would eliminate cattle involved in deforestation from its supply chain by 2025. The reality is, JBS is nowhere near meeting this commitment. Not even JBS’s direct suppliers are totally clean.”

Wyden added that the committee looked at this topic because of its oversight of trade legislation.

Ranking Member Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) also weighed in on the subject.

“Countless studies, spanning a decade, chronical illegal land-grabbing activities of various enterprises as the main accelerators of deforestation,” Crapo said. “More specifically, these studies point to the economic success of such enterprises as empowering various illicit actors to burrow into and hide within complex supply chains and function with near impunity across regions where accountability is limited by the vagaries of national and local political will against the sheer size of the Amazon, which is itself governed, in Brazil, by a unique and highly independent constituent state system.”

Crapo added that conservation and progress do not need to be at odds and measures can respect the right of property owners and balance the needs for conservation and community.

Before taking various questions from committee members, Jason Weller, global chief sustainability officer for JBS, provided testimony on behalf of the company.

He explained that JBS was set to have a clear zero deforestation commitment in the Amazon by direct livestock suppliers by the end of 2023 and indirect livestock suppliers by 2025. He also detailed other policies and systems to monitor deforestation but pointed out the ongoing challenges of stopping the practice.

“As we have learned, simply blocking farms with deforestation concerns is not enough because these blocked farms will continue to produce cattle and other agricultural commodities that will find another way to enter regional and global food supply chains,” Weller said. 

Weller noted that JBS has set up 18 “green offices” to provide technical support and extension services to farmers who want to comply with the practices.

Later in the hearing, Leo McDonnell, a US Cattlemen’s Association representative and Montana Rancher, leveled several allegations about JBS and Brazilian meat companies, including forced labor. He also mentioned the investigations into alleged bribes paid to food safety inspectors and other Brazilian officials over the years.

McDonnell added that imported meat that is packaged and processed in the United States can carry the “Product of USA” label, which McDonnell feels puts American ranchers who raised and processed animals in the American supply chain at a disadvantage. The US Department of Agriculture recently announced a proposed rule on the issue.

“They get to launder their product through here to an unsuspecting consumer who thinks it’s a US product,” McDonnell said. “We’re not competing with them. They are taking our market from us.”

Weller testified that as much as three-quarters of beef produced in Brazil is consumed domestically. He said that about 25% of the beef is exported, with less than 2% coming to the United States.

Other testimony shared how deforestation in the Amazon hit the highest level in 15 years during former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, according to Rick Jacobson, manager of commodities policy at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Jacobson stated that the United States should attempt to pass similar legislation to the European Union, which requires traceability and deforestation-free supply chains for commodities linked to deforestation.

“As the example of illegal deforestation driven by cattle ranching in Brazil and its links to international markets – including our own – clearly demonstrates, opaque and unregulated global commodity supply chains risk making American consumers, businesses and investors unwittingly complicit in environmental crimes that drive deforestation and undermine legitimate agricultural producers at home and abroad,” Jacobson said. “But the US market can also be leveraged to incentivize the needed governance reforms in producer countries.”