"What is cattle-ranching

By Lisa Algee

Most of us know what cattle-ranching is and what purpose it serves, right?

Cattle...cow...mooooo...Cows basically live on a pasture and graze the land.  When they reach a certain size and weight, they are slaughtered for either human or pet consumption in the form of: hamburgers, steaks, luncheon meats, baby food, sausage, and frozen foods; and pet food for your cat or dog. 

In addition, cows can live on a farm and provide milk and other dairy products to a farmer, such as: butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream, etc. 

Cattle in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

I bet you didn't know that...

four Central American countries- Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras- were among the top ten countries ranked by the percentage loss of forests during the period 1981-85.  Costa Rica averaged an annual loss of 3.9% of its forests, largely due to the vast expansion of cattle ranching.  By 1983, about 83% of Costa Rica forests had been felled (cut down), mostly for beef production, and much of that was shipped to the U.S. for use as hamburger (Kricher, 1997, p. 339). 

So, you can see how raising cattle can literally wipe out existing rain forests!

Fact:  The fast food hamburger market in the U.S. required vast amounts of low-quality cheap meat.  The result was widespead deforestation in Central America (WRM Briefing).

Fact:  300 million pounds of beef are imported to the U.S. from Central America alone (RAN, 2004).

Fact:  Campbell's Soup uses rain forest beef.  Burger King backed down on its use of rain forest beef after a Rainforest Action Network boycott (RAN, 2004). 

Deforestation in the Amazon for cattle ranching. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Does Central America still export beef to the U.S.?

Costa Rica no longer does.  I'm not sure whether the other Central American countries do (Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras, and Belize).

So, what's happened to all of the pastures and cattle in Costa Rica?

When Costa Rica stopped exporting cattle to the U.S., it was left with millions of acres of cleared land and cattle.  Today, 3/4 of the cattle are located in the Province Guanacaste (Pacific Northwest side of Costa Rica). 

Group of cattle in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Why do you think the U.S. stopped importing cattle from Costa Rica?

I don't have the answer to this, but we can discuss possible reasons:

  • maybe because the U.S. decided to invest in cattle ranching themselves, i.e., Texas and the Big Island of Hawaii, believe it or not, have the two biggest cattle ranches in the the U.S.  This is where most of the beef in the U.S comes from.
  • maybe the U.S. didn't want to pay import taxes on Costa Rican beef anymore.
  • maybe the U.S. is importing beef from another country which has a cheaper import tax. 
  • maybe the U.S. was afraid of mad cow disease and wanted to raise the cattle in the U.S. to make sure it was disease-free...
  • any ideas you can think of?
Rainforest clearing in the Amazon for cattle ranching. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Is there anything being done to recover the many barren pastures in Costa Rica?

Yes.  Rain forest restoration researchers are trying to figure out effective strategies to restore the pastures.  Some of the obstacles to this recovery are:

  • seed availability: there are no parent trees to provide seeds because the pastures have been cleared
  • lack of seed dispersal:  there are no animals (except for cows) to disperse the seeds in these empty pastures, i.e., birds, bats, and other mammals used to spread the seeds throughout the forest
  • high seed/seedling predation: rodents, leaf-cutter ants, and rabbits will eat seeds and seedlings that are planted for restoration efforts
  • lack of moisture and increased light exposure create arid (dry) conditions which cause fires.  Most tropical forest seedlings are not adapted to fire so this can set back recovery a number of years (Holl, 2002). 
Cow in the Brazilian Pantanal. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

What are some potential solutions to restore these barren pastures?

It's too soon to tell, but Karen Holl (a professor at UCSC, the same school where I'm a grad student) is conducting a study in Agua Buena, Costa Rica to try and answer these research questions:

  1. Is forest recovery more strongly affected by within site restoration or proximity to surrounding forests?
  2. Will planting islands of tree seedlings (clustered groups) enhance forest recovery to a similar degree as planting seedlings in a homogenous plantation (mono-crop)?

Time will tell what the study reveals. 

Cattle in Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Central America isn't the only region where cattle ranching occurs.  In Brazil, cattle ranches occupy somewhere around 8.4 million hectares (20.7 million acres), averaging 24,000 hectares (59,300 acres) each, with some as large as 560,000 hectares (1,383,760 acres).  You would think that the government would be making a lot of money from these cattle ranches, since the U.S. is such a major consumer, but surprisingly, the overall mean output from these ranches averaged only 9% of what was projected. 

In fact, the government is not only losing money from these ranches, they are also giving money (through generous tax breaks and subsidies) to owners of large cattle ranches (Kricher, 1997).  For example, a ranch about 20,000 hectares (49,429 acres) receives about a 75% subsidy (financial assistance from the government!)  Does that make sense?

What's the real reason behind cattle ranching in Brazil?

Here's something interesting.  A small number of wealthy individuals were rewarded for locating vast cattle ranches within Amazonia.  The government provided long-term loans and tax credits to cover most of the investment costs, tax holidays, and write-offs.  Basically, these ranches were used as tax shelters rather than productive components of the Brazilian economy (Kricher, 1997). 

But that still doesn't answer the question, WHY?

One reason is when the Transamazon highway was finally paved in 1973, part of the objective was to move 100,000 families from overly populated, extremely poor urban cities into the Amazon Basin.  However, due to economic setbacks and political changes in Brazil, only 6,000 families moved to the Amazon Basin.  Curiously, the focus had shifted from moving people to increasing cattle production; five million cattle were moved into the area instead (Kricher, 1997). 

Another reason could be that these wealthy individuals who own cattle ranches could be very influential in who becomes elected as a political official.  This would explain why the government gives subsidies and allows ranch owners to use their cattle ranches as tax shelters.  This is just a guess.  What do you think? 

Aside from clearing rain forests and replacing them with pastures which become barren, what are other effects of cattle ranching on the environment?

What would you say if I said an increase in global warming.  What!  How?  Believe it or not, cow gas...okay, I'll say it- farts, are essentially methane gas.  This methane gas is released into earth's atmosphere where it absorbs heat just like carbon dioxide.  This heat absorption increases earth's temperature and we already know what the effects of that are on the environment:

  • an increase in ocean temperature
  • glaciers melting
  • permafrost melting
  • loss of ice habitat for native Alaskan people (and other indigenous tribes), polar bears, caribou, and other polar animals
  • an increase in ocean water
  • an increase in flooding
  • a disturbance in weather patterns, i.e., an increase in the intensity (strength) and duration (time) of hurricanes (MIT scientists)
  • environmental, social, and political problems

One should note that methane gas is not the direct cause of these environmental effects, but it is a contributing factor to global warming.  Something to ruminate about. 

Amazon rainforest clearing for cattle ranching. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Okay, let's see what you learned:

  1. Which four Central American countries ranked the top as far as the percentage loss of forests during the period 1981-85.   
  2. Fill in the blank:  By 1983, about _____ % of Costa Rica forests had been cut down, mostly for ________ production, and much of that was shipped to the U.S. for use as _____________.
  3. T or F.  Does Campbell's Soup use rain forest beef in their products?
  4. Can you name all 7 countries in Central America?
  5. Choose the correct answer:  Costa Rica currently does not (import/export) beef to the U.S.
  6. Name one obstacle to the recovery of barren, cattle pastures.
  7. T or F.  Brazil's cattle industry is a money making business for the country.
  8. Why do you think cattle ranch owners receive tax breaks and subsidies from the government in Brazil?
  9. Name a gas mentioned in this lesson that is a contributing factor to global warming.  Where does this gas come from?
  10. Name one effect of global warming mentioned in this lesson.

Answers are located after the references.

Pen Pal Conversation:  Discuss with your pen pal the effects of cattle ranching on rain forests.  Knowing what you now know, does this persuade you to become a vegetarian, yes or no?   If you eat fast food burgers, will you continue to eat them, yes or no?  If you eat Campbell's Soup, will you continue eating it?  Will you write a letter or call fast food companies and Campbell's Soups asking them to not purchase beef from countries where rain forests were deforested in order to cattle ranch?


Kricher, J. (1997).  A Neotropical Companion: An introduction to the animals, plants, & ecosystems of the New World Tropics.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Holl, D. K. (2002).  Tropical Moist Forest Restoration.  Published in Handbook of Restoration. Vol II: Cambridge University Press



Answers to questions:

  1. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras
  2. 83%, beef, hamburger
  3. T
  4. Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras, and Belize.
  5. export
  6. lack of seed dispersal (spreading)
  7. F
  8. Because cattle ranch owners are wealthy and influential in who becomes elected as a public official
  9. methane, cows!
  10. the melting of glaciers and permafrost

So, how did you do? I'm sure you did SUPER!

The following standards were addressed in this lesson:

Reading:  1.7 Use a dictionary to learn the meaning and other features of unknown words (import, export, subsidies, etc).

Writing Applications:  2.3 Write personal and formal letter, thank-you notes, and invitations (a) show awareness of the knowledge and interests of the audience and establish a purpose and context.

Social Studies:  3.32 Describe the economics established by settlers and their influence on the present-day economy, with emphasis on the importance of private property and entrepreneurship.  3.52 Understand that some goods are made locally, some elsewhere in the U.S., and some abroad. 


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