McDonald's, Walmart and Subway Are Right at the Top of the List in Wrecking the World's Forests

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report, “Cattle, Cleared Forests, and Climate Change: Scoring America’s Top Brands on Their Deforestation-Free Beef Commitments and Practices.” The publication highlights how beef production is the primary contributor to tropical deforestation worldwide, predominantly occurring in South America. According to the report, consumer goods companies “have the power to help stop this destruction,” yet none of the 13 United States companies studied for sourcing South American beef had strong deforestation-free policies or procedures in place. The report advises that companies should work together with meatpackers, ranchers, and government to develop a comprehensive plan to end deforestation practices within the beef industry.


According to the report, one challenge to overcome is the structure of the beef supply chain. Meatpackers receive cattle through direct supplying ranches, only some of which are monitored for deforestation practices. The larger problem arises when cattle are shifted from ranch to ranch through various stages of production, allowing indirect supplying ranches to go unmonitored for deforestation. Without a system in place to track indirect supplying ranches, or the cattle who may pass through them, the meatpackers and the consumer goods companies cannot guarantee that the beef they receive is deforestation-free through the entire supply chain. Authors Asha R. Sharma and Lael K. Goodman see potential for change if major players in the industry band together, “These companies have a responsibility to work with their South American supplying meatpackers, which have enormous influence over the beef supply chain, to adopt robust deforestation-free policies and practices.” The authors also acknowledge consumer responsibility and power to effect change, noting previous success with zero-deforestation palm oil initiatives.

In 2009, the four largest meatpackers in Brazil signed the Minimum Criteria for Industrial Scale Cattle Operations in the Brazilian Amazon Biome agreement (also known as the G4 Agreement or the Cattle Agreement). This pact required the signatories to determine and report that their supplying ranches were not linked to deforestation, marking a “historic step toward corporate actors taking responsibility for their role in driving deforestation.” Acknowledging that this agreement was a step in the right direction toward deforestation-free beef, Sharma and Goodman argue that the agreement falls short in several ways: it is limited to the Amazon and to the signatories, and the meatpackers have so far delayed in implementing monitoring for all supplying ranches.

Because efforts to curtail deforestation largely focus on the Amazon, the authors advise that companies should develop deforestation-free policies that are global in scope. The authors also state that companies should, with the cooperation of meatpackers, monitor all supplying ranches and the cattle that pass through them, ensure the protection of human rights along the supply chain, and support ranchers in improved pastureland management.

The 13 companies in UCS’s study were evaluated in five areas: ambition of deforestation-free commitment; time-bound implementation plan; compliance; transparency; and traceability, monitoring, and verification. The study found that none of the 13 consumer goods companies scored high enough to receive a strong deforestation-free beef policies and procedures rating, and none could guarantee that the beef obtained was from a deforestation-free source. Mars, McDonald’s and Walmart garnered the most points—though still receiving a limited designation; while Nestle, Hormel, Wendy’s, Jack Links, Subway, Burger King, ConAgra, Kroger and Pizza Hut all received very limited designations (the last four all scoring zero).

Read the full report here.

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