3 Feb 2017

Bird-Friendly Beef – Tales from the Southern Cone

Cattle ranching in the Southern Cone (c) Grasslands Alliance
By Nicolas Marchand

As the EU prepares to launch a major public consultation on the future of its mammoth agriculture policy, Nicolas Marchand takes us on an inspirational journey to the fertile grasslands of South America where local gauchos work with BirdLife to rear ‘bird-friendly beef’ – a fantastic example of how sustainable food and farming is a win-win recipe for nature, local culture, business and taste buds.

Farmland birds are the most threatened bird group in Europe: over 300 million individuals have been lost since 1980. This rapid downward population spiral can be directly attributed to damaging changes in modern farming practices, notably the intensive planting of hundreds upon hundreds of square kilometres of the same crop and the over-use of pesticides. Now, as the EU begins to consider reform of its Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), it is more important than ever to show the naysayers that sustainable food and farming is a win-win recipe for nature, birds and people.

So let me take you South by Southwest on a rip roaring adventure to ‘gaucho’ country – the Southern Cone region of South America where the rolling, fertile plains of the Pampas grasslands stretch from the Atlantic to the Andes. This is a critical ecosystem for millions of migratory birds that depend on the Pampas as they fly from their summer breeding grounds in North America to winter in the Southern Cone. The grasslands harbour over 400 bird species, with charismatic South American birds such as the flightless, ostrich-like Greater Rhea thriving alongside North American migrants like the Swainson’s Hawk, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Bobolink. The hundreds of species of grasses and grassland plants also provide food, shelter and breeding grounds for an important number of endemic and globally threatened birds, like the Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Black‐and‐White Monjita and Pampas Meadowlark.


Promotional Poster (c) Grassland Alliance

At the same time, the “gauchos” – the legendary cowboys of South America – have been on this land as far back as the 16th century, when horsemen from Spain emigrated to the Southern Cone. They survived by hunting wild cattle but over time established farms and nurtured a rich culture of music, folklore and fashion. The gauchos became greatly admired and renowned in legends and literature: portrayed as strong, brave and defiant. To this day, they play an important symbolic role in the identity of the region. Unfortunately, local communities are now losing their culture, such as their traditional equestrian knowledge.

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Today, more than 95% of the grasslands are privately owned and used for agricultural production. Moreover, traditional farmers are being tempted to sell their land to agricultural giants, who then convert the native grasslands to grow soybean, wheat and corn crops. These monocultures hamper the grasslands’ ability to produce clean water, retain seed and genetic banks, build resilience to climate change, provide habitats for wildlife and create biomass for high quality meat. And so, conservationists and farmers have united to set up an ambitious plan to save the nature as well as the culture of the region – and it’s called the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance.

“Farmers are often dismissed as the enemies of biodiversity – but, here, the ranchers are the heroes!”

The Alliance – a BirdLife initiative, led by partners Aves Argentina, Aves Uruguay, SAVE Brazil and Guyra Paraguay – has established a brand of ‘bird-friendly’ beef that is commanding a premium price world-wide thanks to the unique flavour and texture afforded by cattle reared on the herb-rich pampas. The goal is to reverse the market-dominating trend of “feedlot beef” which involves feeding confined cattle on soy and grain, much of which is grown on former native grasslands. Conservationists need traditional farmers to save the Pampas’ biodiversity, while farmers increasingly appreciate the support conservationists can provide to make their land more productive and resilient, with better ecosystem functioning understanding and management. To help achieve this, experts within the Alliance have created a certification scheme for the beef that ensures that the farms are biodiversity-friendly and have preserved at least 50% of their natural grasslands, and that the animals themselves have adequate access to quality water, shade and shelter.

Argentina was the first country to make Alliance certified beef available in their domestic market and to begin exporting to Europe, through the Dutch supplier Zandbergen. They were followed by Brazil, where SAVE (Alliance partner in Brazil) signed an agreement with Marfrig Global Foods to supply the Rio Grande do Sul branches of the Carrefour supermarket chain. Now, 312 farms have been certified across the four countries, meaning that a total of 363,900 hectares of grasslands are suitable for producing bird-friendly beef. And it’s been a (tasty) recipe for success in more ways than one – farmers are often dismissed as the enemies of biodiversity, but in the Southern Cone, the ranchers are the heroes!

As we look, here in Europe, at how to fix our broken food and farming system, we’ll find much food for thought on these lush southern plains.


Nicolas Marchand is Coordinator of the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance.