Israeli supermarket accused of selling Argentine beef raised in cleared forest

Greenpeace: Company that supplies meat to Shufersal cut down 300,000 acres of Gran Chaco forest; entire supply chain owned by Argentinian Jewish businessman Eduardo Elsztain

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Clearing rain forest in northern Argentina for the Cresud company and preparing it for pasture. (Greenpeace)
Clearing rain forest in northern Argentina for the Cresud company and preparing it for pasture. (Greenpeace)

The Israeli branch of the international environmental organization Greenpeace is campaigning to force Israel’s largest supermarket chain to break with a beef supplier that it says is clearing vast areas of Argentinian forest to raise cattle.

Research into the supply chain has revealed the central role played by Argentinian Jewish businessman Eduardo Elsztain and his brother Alejandro. The Elsztains own the Cresud company in Argentina, which rears cattle for the beef industry, and whose subsidiary slaughters the animals and exports their meat.

In Israel, the Shufersal supermarket which sells the meat forms part of IDB, a holding company controlled by Eduardo Elsztain.

Some 14,000 Israelis have already signed a petition demanding that Shufersal adopt a no-forest-damage policy.

On Sunday, Greenpeace activists climbed a high post and unfurled a huge banner with the words “Shufersal is killing the forests for you” in front of the company’s headquarters in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv. They left at the request of the fire services, after Shufersal called police.

Greenpeace activists protesting outside the Shufersal company’s headquarters in Rishon Lezion on September 20, 2019. (Greenpeace)

On Friday, the NGO is planning a protest at the same place to mark the end of a week of worldwide climate strikes.

Journey from forest destruction to supermarket shelves

An investigation by Greenpeace in Israel and Argentina unearthed links between human-induced rain forest fires and major supermarkets across Europe and in Israel.

With regard to Israel, they discovered that beef sold under the Angus label at Shufersal came from cattle raised on cleared areas of Argentina’s Gran Chaco forest, the second-largest forest in South America after the Amazon and one that is being hit hard by agricultural development, largely for the production of beef and soy.

Greenpeace discovered that the supply chain leading to Shufersal begins with the Elsztains’ Cresud company, which is active in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay and is a big player in South American agribusiness. Cresud specializes in rearing cattle for beef and cultivating cereals such as corn and soy, as well as sugar cane. It does all of this over some two million acres of land (eight million dunams of land). According to the company’s website (in Spanish), Cresud had 93,591 head of cattle as of June 2018.

Greenpeace Argentina analyzed satellite photos for Cresud-owned land in the Chaco forest from 1998 to 2018, concluding that the company cut down trees in an area covering just under 300,000 acres.  In July, Cresud requested a permit to clear a further 18,700 acres of forest.

Rainforest cleared by the Cresud company in northern Argentina. (Greenpeace)

The cattle fattened by Cresud are transferred for slaughter to a subsidiary called Carnes Pampeanas. Carnes Pampeanas in turn exports the beef from Argentina under the name S. A. Argentinas Agroindustriales Exportaciones. The Neto Group imports it to Israel, under the names El Gaucho and T-Bone Veal. Shufersal sells it under the Angus brand.

Eduardo Elsztain. (Flash90)

Greenpeace Israel’s director of research and strategy, Dr. Jonathan Aikhenbaum, said, “We have concrete evidence that Shufersal is a partner in the destruction of the Chaco, the second biggest forest in South America and an ecosystem of huge importance to the climate system. A tree that is burned in South America to grow a cow whose meat is sold in Israel harms our ability to protect the climate of planet Earth and prevent the disgrace of the climate crisis.”

He added,”We must urgently change the way in which we produce food and must work with nature rather than destroying it. Breaking the link between the beef cattle growing industry and forest destruction is an excellent place to start.”

A Greenpeace spokesman told The Times of Israel that Shufersal’s management had not responded to the group’s repeated requests to meet.

A statement from Shufersal said, “The subject that has been brought to our attention recently is being investigated by a professional team and after we have learned the subject in depth we will decide what to do.” Shufersal was unable to say when this point might be reached.

Like sister branches battling supermarkets in other countries, Greenpeace Israel wants Shufersal to adopt a no-forest-damage policy and to cut ties with companies involved in deforestation.

Israelis love meat

Beef consumption in Israel has risen by some 40 percent over the past two years, Greenpeace says, with nearly 90% of it imported, the bulk last year from South America. Argentinian beef makes up around a third of all beef sold in Israel, with Israel the fifth-most important market for beef for Argentina.

Preparation of Argentinian asado (beef rotating on skewers), November 20, 2006. (Itzhak Harari /Flash90)

Despite Tel Aviv’s reputation as a vegan capital, Israel leads the world in per capita consumption of chicken and is in sixth place for per capita consumption of beef, Greenpeace says, with Israelis consuming more than 81 kilograms (just under 180 pounds) of beef and chicken per capita per year, which is some 40% more than the worldwide average.

The Greenpeace report asserts that industrialized agriculture, including livestock rearing for meat, is responsible for some 80% of forest destruction worldwide, while the burning of forests to clear land for agriculture contributes around 60% of all the gases that create global warming. In 2018, some 61.3 million acres of forest were lost worldwide — an area considerably bigger in size than the whole of Great Britain.

Split between Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, the Gran Chaco contains more than 50 ecosystems including savannas, forests and wetlands. According to Mongabay, an area twice the size of Buenos Aires is cut down every month.

The Nature Conservancy, which is fighting to stop deforestation in Gran Chaco and to implement sustainable agricultural practices, says the area is home to some 3,400 plant species, 500 bird species, 150 mammals, 120 reptiles and 100 amphibians. Faced with habitat loss, many of these species are in danger, among them the giant anteater, the armadillo and the tapir. The organizations says that 25% percent of the Gran Chaco in Argentina has already been cleared for agriculture, with much of this loss taking place over the last 20 years.

Last month, a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended cutting meat consumption to limit global warming, relieve stress on water and land and boost health, food security and biodiversity.

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