Among the twenty top beef-producing nations of the world, three of them are in South America: Brazil (#2), Argentina (#6), and Colombia (#13).

These same countries are also home to the tropical and subtropical rainforests that play a critical role in regulating the planet’s climate. So it’s especially important that the region’s top cattle producers adopt sustainable practices. 

How beef production, climate change, and biodiversity interrelate has the potential to become either a perfect storm of disastrous proportions or a model of how to sustainably feed the world. But what exactly is sustainable cattle ranching and who is responsible for making it happen in South America?


The Triple-Whammy of Unsustainable Cattle Ranching

Unsustainable beef production in South America has a triple-negative impact on the environment when it involves the following practices:

  • Deforestation for Pastureland: The most alarming unsustainable practice in South American cattle ranching is when tropical forests are cleared in order to create pasture land for cattle. When those forests are cut down or burned, huge amounts of greenhouse gases are released, contributing to global warming and climate change. Plus, habitat destruction reduces biodiversity.
  • Deforestation for Cattle Feed Crops: As if the deforestation for pastureland wasn’t enough, even more deforestation takes place to grow crops like soybeans to feed to those cattle as a supplement to pastureland. Rainforest destruction is once again back on the rise


Burning forest to clear the land for cattle last year in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil (New York Times)

  • Cattle and Methane: Further contributions to global warming and climate change come from the cattle themselves in the form of biogenic methane released when the animals pass gas and excrement. As it turns out, cattle are extremely flatulent, and their manure also produces methane. And methane is the second-most important greenhouse gas driving global warming. It can absorb far more heat than carbon dioxide, making it a more potent greenhouse gas even though there is less of it. 

When it comes to global warming and climate change, cattle are the number-one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector worldwide because beef is also the number-one driver of tropical deforestation. Much of South America’s beef is exported to countries around the world, and consumers have no way of knowing whether it was produced sustainably or not.

The Triple Bottom Line for Sustainable Cattle Ranching

The overall idea of sustainability popularized by the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) Brundtland Report called “Our Common Future” is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

One framework for how this concept can play out in business was coined by business writer John Elkington back in 1994: The triple bottom line (3BL) that recognizes the interconnectedness of social, environmental, and economic or financial factors. 

The shorthand way to refer to 3BL is people, planet, and profits. All three must be considered and accounted for to be sustainable. When applied to cattle ranching, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound, and economically viable product.

Sustainable Cattle Ranching in Practice: Continuous Improvement

The various practices that make cattle ranching and dairy farming more sustainable are well documented but are also constantly evolving. This is why the most important pathway to sustainable ranching must be thought of in terms of continuous improvement. The danger lies in farmers and ranchers adopting a few sustainability practices and then thinking they’re done.

A continuous improvement framework is one that adopts an ongoing cycle of adaptive management in which the repeated steps include learn, plan, implement, monitor, evaluate, re-plan. This is a never-ending battle in which stakeholders constantly adapt to new conditions.

Cattle ranching and dairy farming can happen without deforestation. Methane from cows can be drastically reduced by the simple addition of a certain type of seaweed to their feed. A little red seaweed cuts cow methane by 98% with no impact on the meat or milk. 

The story of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) spearheading serious efforts at teaching and implementing sustainable ranching in Colombia is inspiring, especially because their efforts are helping displaced refugees from the country’s long internal conflict rebuild their lives as well as their forests.

Their projects demonstrate various sustainable cattle ranching methods such as silvopastoral systems. This agroforestry approach combines fodder plants (grasses and leguminous herbs) with shrubs and trees for animal nutrition and complementary uses. 


Making Sustainable Ranching a Reality

Everyone has a role to play in advancing the cause of sustainable ranching and dairy farming. Consumers around the world who eat beef products that came from South America can demand deforestation-free beef from companies, as described by the Union of Concerned Scientists

Governments must continue efforts at stopping deforestation. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can step up their advocacy for government support of sustainable ranching, and those with expertise in practices can expand their work in South America. Corporate players must step up and commit to sourcing deforestation-free beef. 

If consumers, corporations, governments, and NGOs all acted in concert, cattle ranching and dairy farming in South America and around the world could become a model of sustainable agriculture. And frankly, it’s what has to happen to avoid a global climate change catastrophe. 

Subscribe to Growth Stories, a weekly newsletter with the latest insights and opportunities you need to become a successful farmland owner.