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Brazilian Cows Are Killing Endangered Birds—But ‘Bird-Safe’ Beef Could Help

An initiative in Brazil is marketing beef that’s raised in a manner that’s safe for the country’s grassland birds.

We've all heard of grass-fed beef, but here's a new twist: beef that doesn't trample the habitats or nests of grassland birds.

This innovative idea comes out of Brazil, where a network of conservation organizations have teamed up with the Carrefour supermarket chain to test-market all-natural beef that is raised in an extra-sustainable manner.

The bird-safe beef—bearing the logo of Alianza del Pastizal ("Grassland Alliance")—is currently for sale in two grocery stores in the city of Porto Alegre. If consumers respond well to the initial three-month promotion, the beef will hopefully be rolled out to a larger number of stores, said Pedro Develey, director of SAVE Brasil, one of the four conservation organizations involved in the program.

So how is this beef better for birds? Well, the meat in question all comes from cattle ranches on what's known as the Southern Cone grasslands, which range from Brazil down to Argentina. This million-square-kilometer network of prairies—home to 12 endangered bird species, including the saffron-cowled blackbird (Xanthopsar flavus), the marsh seedeater (Sporophila palustris), the chestnut seedeater (Sporophila cinnamomea) and the black-and-white monjita (Xolmis dominicanus)—faces ever-increasing pressures from industrial-scale agricultural companies, which are snapping up the land to raise cattle.

A rare photo of a pair of saffron-cowled blackbirds, a female on the left and male on the right, in the Ibera wetlands of Argentina. Image: Lip Kee Yap/Flickr

Not only does this involve converting much of the grassland into agricultural plant species, it also leaves the ground-dwelling birds and their nests susceptible to being trampled to death by herds of hungry cows.

The Grassland Alliance already has some experience in protecting this habitat. The organization previously created a grass-fed beef certification program for producers in the Southern Cone, which encourages landowners not to convert grassland to soy, wheat or maize. This not only protects the land, it also helps the cattle by providing them with better access to water and shade. Most of all, it allows the farmers to sell their grass-fed beef to eco-conscious consumers at a premium price. Keeping grasslands is more expensive for producers, but as we've seen in the US, grass-fed beef has a unique marketing point for the right consumer—although it's not guaranteed to find success.

Now, after several years of planning, they have expanded the certification to cover birds. The new bird-safe beef certification rewards ranchers who conserve at least 50 percent of their landscapes in prime bird habitats. Again, the beef is sold at a premium. "This is crucial, because the producers should receive a bonus for this natural beef," Develey said.

The program has parallels to efforts here in the United States to market wolf-safe beef or other products that are raised in a predator-friendly manner.

Abigail Breuer, program director for the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), which certifies wildlife- and predator-friendly meat and other products, praised the Grassland Alliance's efforts.

Bird-safe beef for sale. Image: SAVE Brasil

"We're glad for projects that recognize the significance of farm and ranch lands for wildlife and help consumers to support conservation practices in agricultural areas," she said. "The future of conservation depends on farm and ranch lands. The more each of us does to support the economies of farms that ensure habitat conservation as part of their management practices, the better we all are. Habitat is not just for wildlife—it helps to provide clean air, clean water and many other human benefits."

WFEN itself is active in similar manners in Brazil, with a newly launched Jaguar Friendly product labelling initiative. "By using certification as a tool we are hoping that we are building some resilience in the face of climate change into the system," said WFEN's executive director, Julie Stein. The program also encourages farmers to provide the big cats with safe passage through their land and to use non-lethal control methods to avoid human-jaguar conflict.

Develey said it will take some time to make the full bird-safe beef supply chain expand, as it needs to find both willing producers and buyers. Although they are still fairly early in that process, he expressed optimism that the new product label would take off. "Consumers should accept and demand for the natural beef," he said. "They will push the market."