As Chinese incomes have risen over the past decade, so has the country’s appetite for beef. No longer out of reach of the middle class, it now sizzles in home woks and restaurant kitchens.
U.S. Firm’s Key Role in China’s Beef Boom and Amazon Destruction
China has become the world’s largest importer of beef and Brazil is the biggest supplier to the Chinese, according to data from the United Nations’ Comtrade trade platform. More beef moves from the South American country to China than between any other pair of nations in the world.
But the Brazilian cattle industry is a strong driver of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Data analysis by The Associated Press and the Rainforest Research Network, a nonprofit information consortium, found that a little-known U.S. company is among the key suppliers and distributors fueling China’s beef hunger…and the Amazon deforestation that causes.
The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, plays a critical role in the global climate by absorbing carbon emissions. A new study published this week in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences linked deforestation of that giant jungle to warmer regional temperatures.
Salt Lake City-based Parker-Migliorini International, better known as PMI Foods, has been a major beneficiary of the beef trade between Brazil and China. PMI has shipped more than $1.7 billion worth of Brazilian beef over the past decade, more than 95% of it to China, according to data from Panjiva, a company that uses customs records to track international trade. Over the past decade, Chinese beef imports have increased sixfold, UN Comtrade data show, and PMI Foods has helped meet growing Chinese demand.
In its role as an intermediary, the activity of PMI – a major importer of Brazilian beef to China – provides a glimpse of how this growing international trade is driving deforestation.
Holly Gibbs, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies land-use changes related to the beef industry, says PMI has contributed to the destruction of the Amazon because it gets meat from companies that buy cattle raised on deforested land.
Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost more than 10,360 square kilometers (4,000 square miles) of tropical rainforest, the equivalent of nearly 3,000 soccer fields every day, according to a January report by Imazon, a Brazilian research group that uses satellite monitoring to track deforestation.
More than two-thirds of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon has been converted to cattle grazing areas, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
PMI sources more of its Brazilian beef from JBS SA-a giant Sao Paulo-based meat processor-than from any other supplier. In a series of reports published between 2018 and 2023, Brazilian prosecutors found that JBS bought massive amounts of cattle raised on illegally deforested land. Last December, prosecutors found that JBS had acquired more than 85,000 cows from ranches involved in illegal deforestation in Pará, one of Brazil’s nine Amazon states. In their most recent report, published on October 26, they found that JBS had substantially lower, but nonetheless significant, rates of purchases from rural farms involved in environmental law violations in four Amazon states.
“There is no question that PMI Foods is benefiting from deforestation in the Amazon,” Gibbs said. “They are also helping to drive that deforestation by continuing to pay into that system.”
In an email, a PMI spokesperson said that “in a world where hunger, malnutrition and acute food insecurity are a global concern, PMI is focused on feeding millions of people” around the globe, including providing meals for refugees.
PMI said it is working to strengthen the environmental practices of its beef operations. “While our absolute top priority is to feed people, we remain committed to continuously improving sustainability throughout the beef value chain,” the spokesperson said.
PMI Foods is a $3 billion global company that buys and sells more than 725.7 million kilograms (1.6 billion pounds) of beef, pork, poultry, seafood and eggs each year. In the past decade, PMI Foods shipped more than $616 million worth of Brazilian beef from JBS, nearly twice as much as from any other supplier, shipping records show.
JBS, in turn, purchased a significant portion of its cattle from ranches set up on illegally deforested land, Brazilian prosecutors found. These properties accounted for 15% of JBS’s cattle supply in the Amazon state of Pará from 2019 to 2020, according to an audit conducted by prosecutors last December. The following year, the company’s purchases from properties linked to environmental law violations dropped to 6% of its supply in four Amazon states, prosecutors found in an audit released in October.
Brazilian authorities have investigated and fined JBS in connection with its purchases of cattle from illegal farms, but these are separate from the audits, which focus on improving the company’s practices.
JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, claims it has fixed problems identified in previous audits by prosecutors. In a statement, the company said it has a “zero tolerance policy for illegal deforestation” in its supply chains, and is adopting blockchain technology to include vetting indirect suppliers by 2025.
However, just last fall JBS admitted to a large-scale purchase of cattle raised on illegally deforested land. Following an investigation by Repórter Brasil, a partner of the Rainforest Research Network, JBS acknowledged that it had illegally purchased nearly 9,000 head of cattle from a rancher whom Brazilian authorities have described as “one of the country’s biggest deforesters.” The rancher, Chaules Volban Pozzebon, is now serving a 70-year prison sentence for crimes including heading a criminal gang.
PMI also buys in large volumes from Marfrig – Brazil’s second largest meat processor – which has also been singled out in reports by environmental groups and media outlets that it bought cattle from ranches that were involved in illegal deforestation. In February 2022, the Inter-American Development Bank did not grant a US$200 million loan to Marfrig amid criticism of the company’s environmental record. In September, Swiss multinational Nestlé dropped Marfrig as a beef supplier in Brazil following press reports that Marfrig had purchased cattle raised on land taken from indigenous peoples.
Marfrig said in an email that the ranch cited in last year’s reports was on land that had not yet been designated protected indigenous territory. Marfrig faced no legal sanctions in relation to the case. The company said it has a “rigorous cattle sourcing policy” that uses satellite monitoring to avoid suppliers linked to deforestation.
When asked about its main suppliers – JBS and Marfrig – buying cattle raised on illegally deforested or confiscated land, PMI said it requires its suppliers to follow local laws, and relies on government environmental agencies in Brazil and elsewhere to enforce them. “PMI relies on the guarantees set forth in its suppliers’ sustainability policies,” a company spokesperson said in an email.
For its part, Brazil’s Environment Ministry said independent audits have shown that major meat processors still buy significant quantities of cattle raised on deforested land through their indirect suppliers.
“The persistence of these cases shows that the companies’ systems are flawed and that there is insufficient effort to prevent illegal purchases,” the ministry said in a statement.
The FBIAnvestigationPMI Foods has previously come under scrutiny by U.S. authorities for its shipments to China.
Between 2008 and 2011, Parker International, PMI’s predecessor and co-creator of PMI Foods, earned more than $289 million in revenue from illegal beef shipments to China, accounting for the majority of U.S.-origin sales to that country, according to a spreadsheet produced by a whistleblower for FBI investigators.
“They were willing to break laws,” informant Brandon Barrick said in an interview in 2022, referring to his time working at PMI. “They were willing to do whatever it took to make money for them.”
In the spring of 2014, Parker International pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement to U.S. authorities about the destination of its beef exports and paid a $1 million fine.
In an email, PMI said it had put “the whole episode behind it” nine years ago and emphasized that Parker International pleaded guilty only to making a false statement. “PMI was never charged with any wrongdoing for its export operations,” said Mark Gaylord, the company’s attorney.
China beef surgeIn the past decade, Chinese beef imports from Brazil have increased from $1.3 billion in 2013 to more than $8 billion in 2022, according to UN Comtrade data.
PMI has been a major player in feeding that growing market. In 2017, the company was the second-largest importer of Brazilian beef to China, according to a 2020 report by Trase, a research group that studies commodity supply chains.
As Brazil became China’s largest supplier, livestock production increased. Beijing imposes relatively few environmental requirements on its beef importers, which means suppliers who need land for cattle may be tempted to deforest, said Gibbs, the University of Wisconsin geography professor.
“As demand for beef in China increases, so does the pressure on the tropical rainforest,” he added.
Daniel Azeredo, a Brazilian federal prosecutor who has spearheaded crackdowns on illegal deforestation in the beef industry, said companies must ensure that products from the Amazon region do not come from illegally deforested land.
“All those involved in the trade of products coming from the Amazon must be able to transparently determine the origin of the products,” Azeredo added.
In response to questions about whether it had raised concerns about deforestation with JBS or other suppliers, PMI Foods said it “maintains conversations with our partners, vendors and suppliers, including JBS, regarding always perfecting best practices toward the environment and sustainability.”
Middlemen evade scrutinyBeing a middleman rather than a company that raises animals or processes meat, PMI’s role in deforestation has come under little scrutiny.
PMI’s reliance on JBS is not unusual among food companies. While a handful of European retailers have dropped JBS beef products in recent years due to concerns about deforestation, prominent U.S. brands such as Kroger and Albertsons, Safeway’s parent company, still buy their beef from it.
Albertsons confirmed that it gets beef from JBS, but said it is only a small amount. Kroger did not respond to inquiries, but its online store includes JBS beef products.
JBS, Marfrig and other major beef producers have signed commitments to work against illegal deforestation. But unlike most major meat processors and commodity traders, PMI has not signed up to agreements to fight deforestation, such as the New York Declaration on Forests, in which those who do commit to targets that include eliminating forest destruction by 2030.
Two months after initial consultations on its environmental policies for this article, PMI said it would join industry efforts to combat deforestation.
“We are now proud to partner with One Tree Planted, Green Business Bureau and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef,” the company said last November. It has since planted 10,000 trees in the Amazon, the company added, part of a longer-term plan to plant 1 million trees.
PMI does not yet subscribe to a pledge against tropical rainforest destruction, but last month said it was weighing doing so. “We are open to commitments and are currently working on these issues,” he said.
Gibbs, the University of Wisconsin professor, said that because PMI and other middlemen have such large purchasing power, “they need to have a seat at the table” to help stop deforestation.
Until now, meat intermediaries have been “completely ignored,” he added, which has allowed meat to reach consumers’ tables without meeting environmental standards strict enough to protect the Amazon.
Azeredo, the Brazilian prosecutor, emphasized that not only meat processors, but all companies in the beef and leather industries share the obligation to avoid buying from suppliers that violate environmental laws.
“All the industry that buys those animals, that sells leather or meat, must make sure not to allow (the acquisition of) products coming from areas where there is illegal deforestation,” Azeredo said.