In many regions of Colombia, the de-facto symbol of wealth and status is cattle. For much of the country’s tumultuous history, powerful landowners have dedicated their vast tracts of land to ranching, creating a rural economy where wealth is highly concentrated. But now, as the cattle industry becomes less and less profitable and eats up more and more of the country’s arable land, many are considering more profitable, more sustainable uses for Colombian land.
What risks does the industry face? For one thing, global beef consumption is declining. Impressively convincing meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger have gained widespread popularity, and global health organizations are gaining traction in their efforts to convince consumers to cut down on their beef consumption. In February of this year, a Yale investigation found that 9 out of 10 Americans are willing to eat less meat, and in January, a Gallup poll stated that 1 of 4 are already consuming less meat.
The pandemic crisis has only exacerbated this trend. Credit-building company Self.inc conducted a poll which found that 23% of Americans are eating more plant-based foods due to the crisis, and another survey from the International Food Information Council found that 85% of consumers have made changes to their eating habits during the pandemic, from cooking at home to buying plant-based food to ordering groceries online. The New York Times even went as far as to say that “The end of meat is here.”
What does this mean for Colombia? For one thing, it calls into question the rising expectations for an up-scaled beef export industry. Although the country has opened new markets for its beef exports, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, its long-term relationships with major importers like the US and the EU will be weakened by declining demand. Even now, the government agriculture agency ICA reports a 2% decline in dollar value of beef exports from 2018 to 2019, despite a small rise in volume.
But declining demand isn’t the only problem facing the Colombian cattle industry. Another major risk is deforestation – and the cattle industry is the main culprit. David Kaimowitz, Director of Climate and Land Use Alliance, has stated that “Extensive cattle ranching is the principal cause of deforestation in Latin America,” especially in Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia, the countries with the highest rates of deforestation in the region.
Although many companies and international agencies have moved to support zero-deforestation cattle ranching in Colombia and elsewhere, deforestation remains a major concern in the country. The rate of deforestation in Colombia saw a 10% decline between 2017 and 2018, but the country still lost almost 200,000 hectares of forest. Wealthy landowners are using the power vacuum left by FARC guerillas to expand their ranches, inflicting significant damage on forests in the process.
For poor laborers in Colombia’s agricultural sector, the focus on cattle is limiting. Even large cattle ranches require relatively few full-time workers, which severely limits job creation and puts pressure on communities during the low seasons. A medium-sized cattle ranch of 250 hectares can be easily managed by half a dozen people, and even during the high season needs no more than a dozen. This has created a class of impoverished cattle laborers with virtually zero upward mobility.
Added to the litany of problems with Colombia’s cattle industry are the unsuitable climate conditions in the coastal regions, where a large portion of the country’s cattle is produced. Heat stress is an added risk factor for Colombian ranchers, who lost 35,000 heads in the first months of the year. This risk is entirely unnecessary, and clearly illustrates the need for more viable alternatives for land use.
What are these alternatives? The hot, wet tropical climate of Colombia’s coast may not be suited for cattle ranching – but it’s perfect for a wide variety of high-value tropical fruits like coconut, mango, and pineapple. These products, which fetch a high price in foreign markets in the US and Europe, could lead to a revitalized agricultural sector with improved sustainability, social impact, and profitability.
In many ways, the focus of Colombian on cattle is holding the agriculture sector back. But now, with logistical capabilities and supply chain integration improving thanks to investment in infrastructure and the secondary sector, there is an opportunity for Colombian agriculture to shift to more sustainable, more profitable land uses. With time, this shift will have a massive impact on the country and its people.