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Fast food giants won’t reach net zero while deforestation is on the menu

Global Canopy’s annual Forest 500 report and ranking of the companies most exposed to deforestation-risk shows that although Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s perform better than their competitors, the fast food sector is not doing enough to tackle deforestation in its supply chains.

By Tilly Reeves-O'Toole

One year ago, Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s took centre stage at COP26 to outline how they would achieve net-zero carbon emissions. While plans to use renewable energy and reduce single-use plastic are welcome, these fast food companies cannot reach net zero without also addressing their exposure to deforestation.

Are fast food companies tackling deforestation? 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached record highs this year, with much of the land cleared to make way for cattle pasture. Soy is also expanding, despite the Amazon Soy Moratorium banning the sale of soy grown on deforested land after 2008.

Fast food giants, including those that have signed up to the Race to Zero (Domino's, Wendy's, Restaurant Brands, Yum! Starbucks and McDonald’s), have large volumes of these forest-risk commodities in their supply chains, exposing them to tropical deforestation risk. McDonald’s claims to be  “one of the world’s largest buyers of beef”. And 77% of global soy is fed to livestock, so it is a hidden ingredient in meat and dairy products. 

Every year, the Forest 500 assesses the 350 companies that are most exposed to deforestation risk, against the commitments they make to eliminate deforestation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and the associated human rights abuses from their supply chains. For our 2022 report, we assessed eight fast food companies. 

Deforestation Commitments of Fast Food Companies in the Forest 500

Forest 500 data shows that Subway (owned by Doctor’s Associates), Domino’s, Inspire Brands (previously known as Dunkin Brands Group, and the parent of companies such as Dunkin Donuts), Starbucks and Wendy’s are serious laggards in the fast-food sector, with no commitments to eliminate deforestation in their soy supply chains. Neither Subway, Domino’s or Inspire Brands have deforestation commitments for beef. (The Forest 500 does not assess Wendy’s for their beef commitment because all their beef is sourced from North America.)

McDonald’s, Restaurant Brands International (which owns Burger King) and Yum! Brands Inc. (KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) have all committed to eliminating deforestation from their beef and soy supply chains. While this is promising, both McDonald’s and Restaurant Brands International have only committed to achieve this by 2030. We need to see action faster.

Failure to implement

Moreover, commitments are only meaningful if they are properly implemented. Forest 500 looks for evidence of how companies guarantee that their supply chains are deforestation-free. This includes whether they can trace where their commodities are sourced from, and whether they require their suppliers to have deforestation-free standards. 

Bar charts showing commitment strength, and reporting and implementation scores of McDonald's, Restaurant Brands International and Yum! Brands

McDonald’s is the only fast food company that has a traceability commitment for soy. While McDonald's and Yum! have both committed to tracing their beef through the supply chain, Yum! does not trace back to point of production, nor do they check for compliance at earlier stages of the supply. Without checking compliance in addition to tracing their commodities through the supply chain, companies cannot guarantee that their beef  is deforestation-free.

This is concerning because forest-risk commodity supply chains are extremely complex. Beef supply chains are particularly fragmented because cattle are moved many times between birth farm and slaughterhouse. 

None of the fast-food companies in the Forest 500 publicly disclose their suppliers – making it impossible for external stakeholders to verify whether they source from companies which ensure that their commodities are deforestation-free. 

Lack of action in the supply chain

Downstream companies like fast food companies can only implement their commitments if they are sourcing from suppliers who are also compliant with the same deforestation-free standards

While beef and soy supply chains are complex, research from  Global Canopy and SEI’s Trase initiative shows that beef and soy markets are dominated by a few big companies. Forest 500 defines 26 producing, processing or trading companies as beef powerbrokers and 32 as soy powerbrokers - meaning they are among the companies with the largest exposure to tropical deforestation-risk through their sourcing of beef and soy. Most of these big suppliers lack  deforestation commitments.

The deforestation commitments of Traders, Producers and Processors that are assessed as powerbrokers for beef/soy:
The deforestation commitments of Traders, Producers and Processors that are assessed as powerbrokers for beef/soy

Just over one third (13/32) of soy producers, processors and traders commit to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. Of those that have made deforestation commitments, just 28% can trace to the point of production. Even fewer (5/26) upstream beef companies have committed to zero-deforestation and none of them report total compliance with their commitments.

Fast food companies cannot meet their public commitments unless they support their suppliers to  implement deforestation-free standards. 

Ending deforestation to achieve net zero

There can be no solution to climate change without halting and reversing deforestation. More specifically, we need companies to end deforestation by 2025 to reach net zero goals. With COP27, the so-called “implementation COP” soon coming to an end, fast food companies that have made commitments to achieving net-zero must prioritise action to eliminate deforestation, conversion, and associated human rights abuses from their supply chains. This means putting pressure on their suppliers too. Without this, their commitments are not worth the paper they are written on.


Image: Brett Jordan, Unsplash

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