Catalyst Summer 2016

What’s Driving Deforestation Today? South American Beef Production

Following the latest scientific evidence on the drivers of deforestation, UCS is pushing to change the practices of beef producers in South America and elsewhere.
Photo: Rhett Butler/

By Lael Goodman

Over the past few years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been working hard to raise awareness about—and stop— deforestation in Southeast Asia caused by palm oil. We have made significant progress, pushing dozens of key companies to commit to deforestation-free palm oil. Today, more palm oil adheres to this standard than ever before. And while palm oil remains a key driver of tropical deforestation, new analysis shows that trade in other commodities is also leading to large amounts of deforestation.

This research makes it even clearer that large agribusiness concerns play a major role in tropical deforestation and that palm oil, beef, soy, and wood products account for the majority of tropical deforestation today. To continue our efforts in reducing deforestation (and its contribution to global warming), UCS is now beginning to pressure companies to commit not only to deforestation-free palm oil, but also to pledging that all the products they source and use are free from deforestation.

The latest data show that the largest contributor to tropical deforestation today is the beef industry. In countries where most of the world’s deforestation occurs, beef is responsible for more thantwice as much deforestation as palm oil, soy, and wood products combined. Most of this deforestation is concentrated in South America. Most beef consumed in the United States comes from cattle raised in North America, so reducing beef consumption can only make a small dent in the problem. Much more effective is for US consumers to pressure large multinational companies to demand “deforestation- free” beef sourcing throughout their global operations.

We learned from our palm oil campaign what a difference we can make when we focus on changing the behavior of key corporate actors, so you’ll be hearing more from us about South American beef production in the months to come. By focusing our efforts on the most important drivers of deforestation, we can have the largest impact in reducing the damages caused by this practice.

Lael Goodman is a policy analyst with the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at UCS, conducting research and analysis on the reduction of tropical deforestation as a means to mitigate climate change. Read more from Lael on our blog, The Equation. Get more information on our deforestation work.