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Is your beef deforestation-free?

by Ellen Griffiths

Consumers in the UK and the rest of Europe could be unwittingly buying deforestation when they buy beef and leather products according to a series of new reports highlighting the risks in furniture and shoes, corned beef and other processed beef products. New research from Greenpeace suggests 50 million hectares of forest will have been lost in the space of a decade for beef, palm oil and soy production.

Cattle biggest driver of tropical deforestation

Cattle is the largest driver of tropical deforestation globally. WWF reports that 25% of climate changing emissions from global land use, land use change and forestry are driven by beef production. This receives far less attention in the media than palm oil, for example, which has less of a deforestation footprint overall.  Studies have found high emissions from beef compared to other agricultural products.

Cattle rearing is also responsible for conversion of forests in the Brazilian Amazon. Recent figures from Global Forest Watch showed that Brazil lost the most primary forest in the world in 2018, at 1.3 million hectares.

Lack of commitments

Despite this huge deforestation footprint, companies in cattle supply chains are least likely to have a zero-deforestation commitment compared to other commodities, according to the 2018 Forest 500 assessment. Only 20 out of the 129 companies assessed for cattle products had a commitment to protect forests. This means that few companies are checking whether the beef or cattle products they source (such as leather or candles) could be linked to deforestation.

Even those companies who do have commitments are not doing enough to ensure they are being implemented. Fast food company McDonalds lost points in the 2018 Forest 500 assessment for not reporting whether they monitored and verified their suppliers against their deforestation commitments, or whether they engage with non-compliant suppliers.

New opportunities for transparency

Companies need to look at their supply chain to understand whether their suppliers may be exposed to deforestation risks. Trase, an online tool that provides greater transparency for supply chains, now covers beef exports from Brazil and Paraguay.

Data for Brazilian beef exports shows that they were dominated by JBS in 2017. Our 2018 Forest 500 assessment found that while JBS has made a zero deforestation commitment, and maps suppliers, this commitment only applies to sourcing in the Amazon and not to other geographies.  

Business risks from deforestation

Companies associated with illegal and unsustainable operations are at risk of fines, and can face delayed or cancelled operations, loss of market access, and reputational damage. This can be a risk particularly in markets where companies are looking to expand exports to countries where market demand for more sustainably sourced commodities is increasing, or where tighter regulations are being considered, as in France.

Financial institutions that invest in companies in cattle supply chains could also be exposed to financial downsides as these business risks may result in reduced profitability for companies.

So what can beef buying companies do?

Companies in beef supply chains can protect themselves against the risks of deforestation by:

  1. Setting specific and time bound zero-deforestation commitments
  2. Analysing their supply chains and prioritise areas of risk
  3. Establishing what traceability they have for their supplies
  4. Engaging with suppliers to ensure compliance with their commitments
  5. Monitoring and report on progress towards compliance with their commitments

Financial institutions can also take steps to avoid these risks by making their own commitments, and by engaging with companies regarding the deforestation risks they face.

Encouragingly, the Forest 500 2018 annual assessment found that companies in the cattle sector were most likely to be involved in joint schemes to further sustainability in the supply chain, such as being active members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

Collaborative action can help drive change across the sector, with companies acting together to address deforestation risks.  As the sector responsible for most global deforestation, the 2019 Forest 500 assessment, due to be released in January 2020, needs to show that this collaboration is translating into effective action and progress is being made.