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COP26 - a halt to deforestation and land degradation by 2030

Will the new pledge help end forest-risk imports for animal feed?

At COP26, over 100 world leaders pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. Will this end forest-risk imports for animal feed?

The signatory countries are home to more than 85% of the world’s forests and included Brazil, where deforestation and land use conversion continues to create cattle pasture and soya fields to support the increasing global demand for meat. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon saw a 12-year high in 2020 under Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, in stark contrast to successful policies in the early 2000s, which slowed down deforestation rates in Brazil at the time. 

What is the scale and impacts of deforestation?

Deforestation, or the cutting down of forests, and the destruction of other important ecosystems such as the Cerrado in Brazil, contributes to climate change by removing vital sources of carbon absorbing trees and other plants and biodiversity loss by destroying the natural habitat of wildlife. Burning and the loss of existing vegetation also contributes massively to direct greenhouse gas emissions.

Boreal (or circumpolar) forests are the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sinks and are under threat from land conversion in countries like Russia and Canada. Both were welcome signatories to the COP26 forest and land use pledge.

What are the aims of the deforestation pledge?

The pledge will hopefully reinforce work by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for which the Soil Association is an accredited certification body and currently certifies more than 25 million hectares in over 35 countries. FSC aims to ensure logging only takes place in compliance with its high environmental and social requirements, protects high conservation value forests, and respects the interests of local people. Russia has the largest area of FSC-certified forests in the world.

£14bn has been offered to support the COP26 deforestation pledge, which proposes to reinforce the role of indigenous people in protecting these environments although indigenous leaders said they were not consulted on the declaration. It does not include any enforcement mechanisms.

Thirty big financial institutions also announced that they will no longer invest in activities linked to deforestation, committing to “eliminating agricultural commodity-driven deforestation from their investment and lending portfolios by 2025”.

Supporters of the deforestation and land use pledge are hoping it doesn’t go the same way as one made in 2014, since when deforestation has actually increased. The 2014 pledge did not include key countries such as Russia and Brazil nor the finances to back it up. But while substantial funds have been promised to meet the COP26 pledge, how the aims will be achieved is unclear. While an average 10 million hectares of forest were cleared annually between 2010 and 2015, an analysis of progress on the 2014 pledge concluded that deforestation rates needed to fall by a million hectares a year to end deforestation by 2030. As the UK’s International Minister for Environment, Lord Goldsmith noted, “incentives in favour of destroying forests outstrip incentives to protect them by 40 to 1”. This needs to drastically change.

Deforestation and land use change in Latin America

The Soil Association has been drawing attention to the impact of soya grown in sensitive environments in Latin America to feed livestock in intensive systems in the UK, chicken in particular, which is seeing year on year increases in consumption in the country. We are calling for “Peak Poultry” and for UK governments to support the phase-out of intensive poultry served in schools and hospitals, a moratorium on intensive poultry units and support for less intensive livestock systems such as organic and for dietary change to include less and better meat.

The UK Government has said it wants to require companies producing animal feed to “only use soya which doesn’t destroy forests”. Defra secretary George Eustice reiterated again this week the UK Government’s commitment, made last year, to stop illegal deforestation by putting legislation in place to ensure UK companies don’t source commodities such as soya for animal feed from “ecologically-damaging operations”. This is the Environment Bill’s “due diligence requirement” on so-called “forest-risk commodities”, like soya, to make sure imports into the UK are not linked to illegal deforestation. It is not enough to address illegal deforestation, however. Under the government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, where the majority of UK imported soya comes from, there is often a fine line between legal and illegal. Enforcement of existing legislation has been stymied by budget cuts to federal agencies and a loosening of restrictions. The Environment Bill should be strengthened to cover all types of deforestation and clearance of natural areas of high importance for climate and biodiversity. It is hoped that forthcoming measures in the EU to address deforestation and land use-risk commodities will address some of these challenges.

Twenty-eight countries made similar commitments to the UK at COP26 this week, signing up to a new forests, agriculture and commodity trade “road map of action" to address the impact of products such as soya, palm oil and cocoa. The signatory countries together represent three-quarters of global trade in palm oil, soya, cocoa, beef and timber and include Indonesia, the world’s largest exporter of palm oil.

More than three million tonnes of soya is imported into the UK to feed chickens and other livestock each year, with about two-thirds coming from South America. In 2019, according to the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya, about 40% of this imported feed had no sourcing requirements.

Pressure to remove deforestation from supply chains

While there is increasing political pressure to address damaging supply chains, with supermarkets and even feed suppliers looking to end their links to deforestation, chicken consumption continues to rise, not only in the UK but worldwide. This is why we feel only “Peak Poultry” will address the ongoing impact of intensive chicken farming.

In October we welcomed the commitment made by 10 UK restaurant chains to take positive steps to remove deforestation from the meat they feed to customers. Responding to our Out to Lunch campaign, they signed a pledge to ensure all soya used as animal feed in their supply chain is certified sustainable by 2023.

More support for existing innovations in farming

To fully address the impact of livestock on climate and biodiversity, however, farmers are being encouraged to explore alternative feed options for their animals. The Innovative Farmers initiative is helping farmers transition away from imported soya and towards UK-grown proteins such as  sprouting wheat and vetch seeds, grain tailings, and processed beans.

As Jerry Alford, Innovative Farmers field lab coordinator, and arable and soils advisor at the Soil Association said of the three-year collaboration between farmers and researchers, “For organic farmers in particular, the trial results offer a way to achieve 100% organic feed without the carbon footprint associated with imported products, something that many producers have always felt goes against organic principles.”

The role of forests in protecting our planet

Forests and other natural ecosystems are not only vital for capturing carbon to help us reduce climate change. They also protect against the extreme weather we are already experiencing and will continue to do so for some time to come, even if the 1.5 degree goal is met. As farmers in our new Agroforestry in the Uplands film have been discovering, trees add resilience, protecting against soil erosion and flooding and providing livestock with shelter from extreme conditions.

Timber as a climate friendly material, can also help protect the planet by offering an alternative to fossil fuel dependent alternatives such as steel and concrete. Long-term uses for timber also have the benefit of storing carbon outside of the forest. Furthermore, the sustainable production of timber based on FSC requirements can offer an alternative livelihood option for local and indigenous communities thereby helping to provide an alternative to forest clearance for land use change.

Forests and other ecosystems are the lifeblood of our planet and any effort to protect them is a welcome step forward in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises we desperately need to solve to protect all life on Earth.

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Over the coming months and years, we will be campaigning for ‘less and better’ meat – a call to transition away from intensive livestock farming, towards agroecological systems which integrate animals into nature-friendly farm systems.

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