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A clear path

Gibbs advances forest protection by tracking agriculture in the Amazon

February 10, 2017

Holly Gibbs

Peeling away the relationship between agribusiness and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest presents a kind of chicken-or-egg conundrum.

Finding out which factor preceded the other, or how soon agribusiness moved in after the first patch of Amazonian rainforest was cleared, could provide important insights. 

That’s the challenge that stands before UW-Madison’s Holly Gibbs, a professor of geography and environmental studies. She and her team in the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment are working to understand when and why people clear land in the tropics for beef and soy production.

“We will literally map on the ground where and when the first soy silo existed in the Amazon, or the first slaughterhouse was set up,” Gibbs explains. “We want to understand, did agribusiness come first and bring deforestation with it? Or does agribusiness simply follow the waves of deforestation happening in response to public policies or for other reasons?”

To investigate these connections, Gibbs’ lab is creating the world’s first database documenting the soy and cattle industry’s evolution in Brazil and how it relates to deforestation and land management decisions. The team is using high-resolution satellite imagery, extensive fieldwork and government databases. 

Gibbs' lab is creating the 
world's first database 
documenting the soy and   
cattle industry's evolution in 
Brazil and how it relates to
deforestation and land
management decisions.

“Having this information will allow us to predict the how, when and why of the next wave of agricultural expansion,” Gibbs says. Evaluating the outcomes and effectiveness of deforestation commitments, and projecting future policy scenarios, becomes even more prescient as global population and consumption increases, and food production is predicted to rise by 60 percent by 2050. World leaders will most likely look to the tropics to meet mounting demands for food, feed and fuel, as they have in the past, Gibbs says. And if history repeats itself, deforestation will increase as well.

“There’s going to be a great deal of pressure and stress on forest ecosystems, so it’s critical that we start finding solutions to reduce deforestation,” she says.

Historically in the tropics, agriculture has expanded through deforestation. From 1980-2000, more than 80 percent of new agricultural land came from clearing tropical forests according to an analysis by Gibbs in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But more recently, new zero-deforestation commitments – in which multinational grain traders, large beef processors and other businesses commit to removing deforestation from their supply chain – have drastically reduced the amount of forest loss linked to beef and soy production in Brazil.

Gibbs’ new research, supported by a $2.1 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a $6.6 million grant from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, will advance efforts to measure past and current tree loss in the Amazon, changes in local levels of carbon, and whether private-sector agreements to reduce deforestation have impacted global climate change.

“This support positions us to be able to make real change on the ground,” Gibbs says. “We can take the momentum from previous research and dive deeper.”

For example, in recent years global retailers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart have committed to removing beef and soy produced on deforested land from their supply chain. In turn, commodity traders – companies like Cargill that buy agricultural goods – have put pressure on local producers to follow suit.

Gibbs has shown that these market-driven zero-deforestation agreements significantly influence the way farmers and ranchers manage their land and sell their products.

A 2015 study published in Conservation Letters by Gibbs and collaborators showed that before JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, publicly committed in 2009 to remove deforestation from their supply chain, four in 10 of their direct suppliers were operating on cleared land. By 2013, that number dropped to four in 100. In a separate study published in 2015 in Science, highlighting the success of Brazil’s Soy Moratorium, Gibbs and colleagues found that soy farmers were more concerned with abiding by the moratorium than with national laws.

“Companies and retailers are now helping to shift the tide of deforestation in places like the Amazon,” Gibbs says. “By making major public commitments to remove deforestation from their supply chain, these multinational companies can send signals through their supply chains until they reach the farmers and ranchers. We’ve seen that these market-based pressures and private governance efforts are leading changes on the ground that we never before thought were possible.”

But loopholes do exist, Gibbs notes. For example, not all slaughterhouses have made zero-deforestation commitments. This opens the door for deforestation “leakage,” where ranchers with deforestation simply avoid slaughterhouses that are monitoring for the practice.

soy and cattle
To learn more, visit, a website that Gibbs’
lab developed in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation.

Similarly, the zero-deforestation interventions currently apply only to land where a business transaction is made. Consequently, a rancher may raise cattle on recently deforested or “dirty” land, but then “launder” the cattle by moving them to a compliant or “clean” property without deforestation.

“While these public and private supply chain agreements have led to change, there are a lot of challenges left to resolve,” Gibbs says. “Our research aims to assess the outcomes and continue to improve our understanding of what policy options might better protect the forests and surrounding biome.”

Gibbs, who is the first to evaluate the impacts of zero-deforestation agreements, believes her research is on track to show that sustainable market practices can support forest conservation, even with growing agricultural demand. To further improve both tropical forest conservation practices and the science behind them, in September Gibbs convened on campus an expert working group of global scholars studying these topics.

“This work is really important to help support efforts, through rigorous scientific analyses, that prove exactly what the outcomes are from these private government efforts,” Gibbs says. “Highlighting both their successes and their shortcomings can guide where to invest time and money as we find forest conservation solutions.”