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Can Government legislation end deforestation?

An end to deforestation?

It’s almost too hard to take in – the Amazon rainforest, one of the Earth’s most iconic biodiversity hotspots, the lungs of our planet, could be reaching a tipping point.

Decades of deforestation, clearing the land for livestock production and arable farming, combined with drought, the impact of climate change, have left 75% of the forest at reduced levels of resilience to recovery. Researchers say it could be a matter of decades before a “significant chunk” of the Amazon becomes savannah, releasing the carbon it stores into the atmosphere.

Deforestation has enormous consequences

Huge swathes of the Amazon have been cleared for the production of soya, a so-called “forest risk commodity” that is one of eight such products currently being considered for “due diligence” legislation as part of the UK’s recently adopted Environment Act. 

Around three million tonnes of soya are imported into the UK each year, the majority sourced from Latin America. Only a fraction is consumed as soya milk, tofu and similar products. Most of what we eat is “embedded” in animal products such as pork and poultry. Intensive poultry production relies on fast-growing breeds fed on high protein crops. In other words, soya. 

And demand for “grain-fed” meat is rising across the globe. Brazil has become the global centre of soya farming, with production increasing almost sixfold since 1990. Deforestation of the Amazon and the conversion of other vital ecosystems such as the Cerrado, also in Brazil, have freed up land for soya production to meet growing consumption levels of meat in countries like the UK – in particular chicken. This devastates wildlife, ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

Positive commitments to ending deforestation 

There is an urgent need to end the deforestation and land conversion associated with forest risk commodities imported to the UK like soya and there has been some welcome progress in this area.

At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November, more than 100 countries, including Brazil, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. Twenty-eight countries also signed 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. Retailers and other stakeholders have signed the UK Soy Manifesto, an industry commitment to ensure that physical shipments of soya into the UK are deforestation and land conversion-free by 2025 at the latest.

These companies and others importing forest risk commodities into the UK are also now subject to legislation, with the 2021 UK Environment Act, which aims to address illegal deforestation in UK supply chains.

Due diligence  

The Act has yet to be fully implemented. The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been consulting on so-called “due diligence” provisions making it illegal for “larger businesses operating in the UK to use key forest risk commodities produced on land illegally occupied or used” and requiring them to “undertake a due diligence exercise on their supply chains and to report on this exercise annually”. Secondary legislation is required to implement these provisions. Due diligence tracks materials back to the forest they came from and minimises the risk of illegal materials entering supply chains.

The Soil Association responded to the consultation, which ended on 11th March, proposing rapid action to effectively cover several forest-risk commodities and, at the very least, palm, soya, beef and cocoa. While the government proposes legislation targeting “larger businesses”, we urge against thresholds for inclusion, noting that implementation could be impacted by complicated judgements about whether companies have reached the set threshold and pointing to the UK Timber Regulations, which have none.

Due diligence can make companies more resilient to the physical impacts of deforestation on production of commodities, fires, drought, flooding and wider climate impacts. It also increases understanding of supply chains and improves risk management more widely. As we outline in our new report on Regenerative Forestry, forests not only help us tackle the climate crisis and create vital habitat for wildlife, they also support meaningful livelihoods and improve physical and mental health.

Are we on track to save the world’s forests?

My childhood hero was Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist. Against all odds, he fought to save the Amazon and protect the rights of indigenous and other people living there.

Cattle ranching was the big threat to the Amazon in Chico Mendes’ day, soon to be followed by soya farming as the livestock industry around the world sought cheap protein-rich crops to support their intensive rearing of poultry and other animals for meat. The Amazon Soy Moratorium, introduced in 2006, has successfully prevented rainforest conversion into soya fields. Recent investigations have revealed a loophole, however, as a result of the moratorium restricting soya production but not cattle and other commodities, prompting further deforestation. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is off to its fastest pace since at least 2008, despite Brazil’s COP26 commitments. Global Canopy has also raised concerns about companies and financial institutions linked to deforestation being ill-prepared for upcoming regulatory changes implementing COP26 commitments.

Reducing our reliance on forest risk commodities

We need to end our reliance on overseas commodities produced using environmentally destructive practices. Whilst not in Latin America, the Ukraine crisis is a timely reminder of global reliance on internationally traded grain for intensive livestock farming, with shortages in supply and escalating prices presenting very real challenges to the intensive meat sector in the UK and across Europe. This might force farmers’ hands in seeking out alternatives for animal feed. But long term change will require support from Government, supermarkets and others to UK farmers producing home-grown proteins such as peas and beans using agroecological techniques, in rotation or as cover crops. Production should switch to slower-growing chickens, reducing reliance on soya and improving welfare and the nutritional quality of chicken meat.

We also need to support the consumption of less and better meat. In August 2021 we called for “Peak Poultry”, urging the government to take action to ensure UK consumption and production of poultry peaks within 12 months and declines thereafter, including by phasing out industrial chicken meat from the menu in schools and hospitals, introducing an immediate ban on new intensive poultry units and supporting producers to transition to agroecological and higher welfare production systems.

We continue to campaign for action to address UK soya supply chains and will be launching a new call to action at the end of April. Please sign up to our newsletter today to be kept informed about how you can help.