Unearthed today: What are supermarkets doing to stop deforestation?

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The stakes are high. We face a climate crisis which threatens rising temperatures and volatile weather, a global collapse of biodiversity which could undermine food supply and an apparently increasing threat posed by the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. 

All three crises demand action to protect the world’s forests and yet they are rapidly being cleared: in Brazil, an area of forest four times the size of London is felled every year in the Amazon and beyond for cattle farming alone.

Last month a major investigation by Unearthed, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others revealed that chickens sold in Tesco, Lidl, Asda, McDonald’s and Nando’s are raised on soya linked to massive deforestation in Brazil’s sensitive Cerrado habitat. 

The supermarkets argue this is not their fault. “Setting fires to clear land for crops must stop,” a Tesco spokesperson said. “We are working with partners, including WWF to build the industry-wide support needed to deliver this.” 

The investigation revealed a complex and opaque supply chain which makes it hard for retailers – let alone consumers – to buy soya from countries such as Brazil with any confidence that forests have not been burned or cleared to grow it.

Attempts to fix this through negotiations between retailers and suppliers have so far yielded limited success. The FT reports that talks to protect Brazil’s Cerrado savannah broke down late last year, and the retailers have now resorted to the classic NGO tactic of the open letter. Tesco also offered £10m to fix the problem; roughly 0.5% of UK operating profit according to their accounts.

In the meantime, supermarkets keep buying the products linked to deforestation. Alongside industry talks, they are asking for political intervention. Right now – there are few laws to prevent the import of soy linked to deforestation by retailers. That’s starting to change.

Both the UK government and European Union are considering ways to limit the destruction of forests for paper and timber, as well as to clear land for meat, soya used for animal feed, and other commodities sold to British and European consumers.

But while major supermarkets have made a public push for the UK’s laws to be even more ambitious, behind the scenes in Brussels a trade association representing some of the very same brands is trying to weaken the proposals. 

The UK’s government has proposed new anti-deforestation rules covering illegal deforestation. In response to the consultation, members of the Retail Soy Group – including Tesco, Lidl and Marks & Spencer – wrote to environment secretary George Eustice in October welcoming the plans but urging the government to “go further” to provide an “effective, workable, and cost-effective framework for halting all forms of deforestation”. 

The laws should aim to prevent legal, as well as illegal, deforestation, the Retail Soy Group wrote. The retailers called for stronger, more prescriptive due diligence rules that would force suppliers and traders to reveal details of their supply chains. “In short, with the right enabling framework this legislation could provide the necessary provisions to ensure food production and material supply companies are engaged in standardised reporting,” the group wrote. 

The UK – of course – is unlikely to want to move too far ahead of its new trading partner/rival, the EU, which is also going through a similar process. Except there, things look a little different.

This autumn European Parliament’s environment committee produced recommendations for laws aiming to “halt and reverse EU-driven deforestation”. 

Shortly before the committee was to vote on the report, EuroCommerce, which represents major retailers from across the bloc including Tesco, Lidl and M&S, wrote to MEPs urging them not to recommend especially stringent anti-deforestation laws. 

The measures should be “feasible and enforceable; extending the scope too far could lead to problems with implementation and enforcement,” EuroCommerce wrote. The report should “avoid prescribing in detail exactly how due diligence is applied”, the trade association warned. 

Saskia Ozinga, founder of Fern, an NGO focusing on forests, said of EuroCommerce’s letter: “I think the most dangerous point is that they don’t want the EU to be very clear about how they interpret due diligence. Because if you don’t do that, then I think you’re going to end up with something which is very meaningless.”

She added: “For any law to be effective and implementable, it needs to be… both prescriptive and precise about what it is that you want these companies to do. And if they’re campaigning against that, then that indicates to me that they’re not that serious about what they want to be checked on.”

Like the import of soy linked to deforestation, however, this lobbying is also – apparently – not the responsibility of UK retailers. 

When we reached out to the firms, all said they were taking steps to address deforestation in their supply chains – and distanced themselves from the lobbying. Marks & Spencer and Tesco said EuroCommerce’s lobbying did not represent their views. 

A spokesperson for Tesco said: “We believe that governments throughout the world must do more to prevent further deforestation, and we recently called on the UK government to mandate food companies to ensure all food sold in the UK is deforestation-free. On this issue our position differs from EuroCommerce.”

Unearthed understands that Tesco did raise concerns about the letter; though they did so in private and after it had been sent. 

A EuroCommerce representative, meanwhile, told Unearthed it wrote to MEPs “on behalf of the sector, not on behalf of individual companies, some of whom are already pioneering even more ambitious approaches to the problem.” 

Marie Toussaint, a Green MEP who tweeted EuroCommerce’s letter when she received it in mid-October, told Unearthed that EuroCommerce was the most active group when it came to lobbying on the proposals. “If one company is sincere in what they say, they can also quit [their trade associations],” Toussaint said. 

The lobbying is unlikely to be over. The European parliament’s report was approved by MEPs in a vote in October and will be considered by the Commission as it prepares its own text on deforestation measures, which is expected in the spring.