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Stopping Brazilian deforestation appearing on supermarket shelves

Helen Burley

Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon reached record levels in the first three months of this year, with an area the size of New York City cleared. Illegal deforestation is rife, and Jair Bolsonaro’s government appears intent on exacerbating the situation, with a proposal to legalise the private occupation of public lands – a land grabber’s charter that will drive further deforestation.

According to Imazon, a Brazilian NGO, the new measures could lead to the destruction of an additional 1.6 million hectares of tropical forest by 2027.  

In a welcome move, UK supermarkets – many of whose shelves are lined with products containing Brazilian beef and soy potentially sourced from the Amazon –  have written an open letter to the Brazilian National Congress warning that the proposed law may drive them to boycott products from Brazil.

It is a big step – but highlights the challenge faced by companies that want to eradicate deforestation from their supply chains.  

Understanding where the risks lie

If a supermarket does not know whether the pork for its sausages was raised on soy from the Amazon or from the south of Brazil where the deforestation risk is minimal, it is powerless to address deforestation – whether that is by boycotting certain markets, avoiding sourcing from high risk regions, or by engaging with its suppliers to improve their practices.

That is why the first step for any company is to understand its supply chains, to know where the ingredients in the products come from, and to identify whether that means they are at risk. Groundbreaking data tools such as Trase can help companies to identify where the risks lie in their supply chains, revealing the areas with high levels of deforestation, the markets they supply and the traders involved. 

Acting to reduce the risks

Having identified the risks, companies can then take steps to reduce their exposure by introducing and implementing appropriate policies that ensure risks are minimised.

Global Canopy’s Forest 500 rankings score companies both on these deforestation commitments as well as progress in implementing them. Many of the companies that have signed the letter are included in our latest assessment.

Some, such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have already made commitments to address deforestation in some of their supply chains, but other signatories of the joint letter have work to do to even begin tackling the deforestation in their supply chains. 

Fast-food chain Burger King, for example, has previously faced allegations of links to deforestation in the Amazon, and its owner Restaurant Brands International scored just 2/5 in the latest Forest 500 assessment. This is partly because the company does not have any commitment to traceability in its beef or soy supply chains – and so cannot check whether supplies are coming from recently deforested areas. 

Similarly, the German retail group, Metro AG, and Dutch retail group Ahold Delhaize have scored poorly for their policies to address deforestation so far, and so their signatures on this letter are good to see. But will they act? Metro AG has no commitments to protect forests in its beef supply chain, and no commitment to traceability for soy, while Ahold Delhaize only has a broad commitment to sustainability for its beef supply chain and no commitments on traceability. 

By signing the letter, these companies are publicly recognising the importance of addressing deforestation and sounding a much needed warning to the Brazilian government. This is a welcome move, but they must also engage with the suppliers in their own supply chains. While a blanket boycott may seem like a simple solution, action to exclude all Brazilian goods would exclude sustainable suppliers as well as those sourcing from high risk areas. 

A role for governments

The companies and investors that signed the open letter are not the only voices opposing the Brazilian government’s plans – with parliamentarians in the UK also appealing for the proposals to be dropped.

The UK’s overseas land footprint has increased by 15% since 2015. In recognition of this issue, the UK Government’s Global Resource Initiative taskforce has recommended new legislation to require companies to carry out due diligence on their supply chains – and similar measures are being taken forward within the European Union. 

Drawing a line in the sand

The threat of a boycott can be powerful. Brazil’s economy depends on its global export markets – the risk of those markets shrinking will give the President pause for thought.

And perhaps he is listening. The vote initially scheduled in the Congress last week has been delayed.  

But even if the measures are blocked, action is still needed to address the soaring levels of deforestation already taking place in the Amazon and elsewhere. These companies rightly recognise the need to invest in sustainable supply chains – and ensure that they can source from Brazil without driving deforestation. This means looking to their supply chains and taking action. And governments can play their in part in supporting them to take the necessary steps.

 

Photo (top): Tesco Slough, osde8info, creative commons