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Photographer Shows How Steaks Are Raised in Brazil

Brazil is the number-one exporter of meat, and there’s a lot of money involved in getting cows to the steakhouse.

Posted on August 12, 2016, at 5:44 p.m. ET

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Rodrigo Rodrigues da Cunha, 27, the financial manager for his family's agro-cattle business, visits a farm in Mato Grosso newly acquired by the group.

Brazil is one of the top exporters of meat worldwide, and the city of Uberaba is the epicenter of the rapidly changing trade. The romantic ideal of farmers raising cows is being replaced by high-tech innovations such as the use of genetics and cloning as the landowners exert influence upon the government to grow their share of the global market even further. BuzzFeed News spoke with photographer Carolina Arantes about her project Holy Cow, which examines the cattle industry. The project was one of two selected from an Open Call in partnership with Visura.

How long did you work on this project?

Along three years, since 2013. I spent at least one month in Brazil working in this project. During the months of May — when the ExpoZebu happens — I have been shooting, meeting specialists, and researching the theme.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Cattle feedlot in Pontes e Lacerda in 2015. Brazil's cattle confinement is expected to continue growing over the next few years.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about cattle?

I've learned many! Above all, it was surprising to realize that one animal alone consumes 40–50 liters of water per day, under normal temperature. It is widely known that cattle production demands loads of resources from the planet. Besides water, the animals require space — as their own food production requires as well. However, realizing it in the fields is quite impressive.

I’ve met a few young, respected professionals and farmers concerned about the environmental issues. This is a hard fight; let's hope they will be able to adapt the business to reduce its impact on the environment.

Livestock production is a highly complex subject, with significant alimentary, political, economic, and environmental consequences. So I was also surprised to see that the cattle breeders are a powerful force in Brazil. As the activity grows each day, across borders, it becomes even more impersonal and businesslike, whilst the traditional farming is weakening.

Nonetheless, the small and even medium farmers, who make up 70% of the industry, still raise nongenetically developed animals. The prices to acquire and maintain a qualified animal practically exclude them from the business. Again, some programs try to integrate the small farmers and, although they work hard at it, this target is still not on the main list of necessary measures to be taken by key actors. For such an important national industry — that had begun with a beautiful traditional story, made by small farmers not so long ago — this is a shame. The sophisticated cattle breeding is incredibly well-developed in the country, mainly by private initiatives (together with some public loans and public agronomic researches), using advanced technology in animal genetics, nutrition and pastures, sanitary controls, and machinery. That benefits the country in different ways.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Farmers at a 2013 ExpoZebu auction in Uberaba.

What is the general reaction to cloning for food in the industry/country?

As far as I know, cloning relates only to genetic material (sperm) for sale in the country. In Brazil, the Zebu breed was developed naturally, and some achieved what the industry believes to be excellent standards. They are extremely expensive animals, raised for reproduction. Therefore, cloning can preserve genetic patterns and boost the commercial value.

Which is your favorite image?

My favorite image at the moment is the one some people called the "Peepshow" cow. To me, it represents the significance of Zebu to the meat industry — how it is a venerated animal. The picture portrays a celebratory moment. I think it could almost be a religious image — if the animal were from India.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

A breeder meeting during ExpoZebu in 2014.

Carolina Arantes / Carolina Arantes/INSTITUTE

A female calf enters an auction during ExpoZebu in 2013.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

A man collects semen from a bull at ABS PecPlan, a leading international laboratory of bovine genetics, in Uberaba in 2015.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Pipettes of semen in an ABS PecPlan storage tank.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

A cattle feedlot in Pontes e Lacerda in 2015.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Antonio Ronaldo Rodrigues da Cunha and his son observe a worker mix feed at one of their farms in Mato Grosso in 2015. Soybean meal, corn DDG, cottonseed, ground sorghum, salt, and moist corn constitute the feed on this farm. More than 200 metric tons of feed are served daily to 30,000 animals.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Antonio Ronaldo Rodrigues da Cunha, 80, one of the most important cattle breeders in Brazil, walks with his daughter to their private plane in Pontes e Lacerda in 2015.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Pimenta da Veiga, formerly the minister of communications during Fernando Henrique Cardoso's presidency, visits the headquarters of the Brazilian Association of Zebu Cattle Breeders in 2014, on the eve of the presidential elections.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

A cow in Uberaba looks beyond the fences.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Cowboys sing the national hymn at the opening of ExpoZebu in 2013.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Calves prepare to enter an auction during ExpoZebu in 2013.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Newly slaughtered oxen in a refrigerator in Bataguassu in 2015.

Carolina Arantes / The Story Institute

Churrasquinho de gato (literally translated as "cat barbecue"), Brazil's popular meat skewers, in Pontes e Lacerda in 2015.

Carolina Arantes is a photographer based in Brazil and France. She is currently working on a project about the first generation of Afro-French women.

This interview has been edited for length and/or clarity.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.