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Government regulation is the missing ingredient in efforts to end deforestation driven by agriculture (commentary)

  • Despite countless corporate commitments, tropical deforestation for agriculture remains rampant.
  • New research reveals that we need government regulation to achieve meaningful results.
  • The European Union, a top importer of products that drive deforestation, must take the opportunity to make a difference, writes Nicole Polsterer, Sustainable consumption campaigner at the NGO Fern.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Despite international commitments to halt deforestation by 2020, forests continue to be felled at an alarming rate. As a recent report reveals, at least 10 million hectares of tropical forest — an area more than three times the size of Belgium — continues to be lost and degraded every year, harming forest communities’ rights and emitting 10 percent of global emissions per year.

The biggest driver of deforestation is the production of agricultural commodities such as beef, palm oil, soy, and cocoa that are used to make the snacks, cosmetics, biofuels, hamburgers, and dairy products we consume daily. It accounts for no less than 80 percent of deforestation worldwide.

Faced with growing pressure from their customers, more than 470 companies in the food and agriculture sector have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. But those commitments are generally weak and companies still struggle to even know where their products were grown. The numbers are appalling: only 14 percent of all soy companies can trace their goods back to their farm or origin while only 2 percent of palm oil companies can source their products to their forest of origin.

Clearly, current action against deforestation isn’t enough. If we continue on the same path, the 2020 target will not be met.

So, what to do?

Recent large scale forest clearance to make way for soy plantation, Chaco region, Argentina. Photo Credit: Jim Wickens/2017.

Going beyond voluntary commitments

“Getting the bads out of the goods,” a new report launched today by Fern and Forest Trends, gives hope.

Looking for the best ways to end agriculture-driven deforestation, the authors investigated efforts to tackle the trade of other unsustainable products, such as conflict diamonds, illegal logging, and ozone-depleting substances.

They uncovered a consistent but never-before-revealed pattern: NGOs raise awareness about an issue, companies make voluntary commitments, then national and international regulations follow. This proves to be the most comprehensive way to tackle these “bads.” Though voluntary efforts were an important step, they were not enough to curtail the activity in question on a large scale.

The study also draws lessons learned for agricultural commodities associated with deforestation and concludes that we are in the middle of this pattern. Both private companies and governments have adopted a variety of declarations and commitments to the objective of zero deforestation, but concrete actions have to date largely been limited to companies. In order to have a significant impact, consumer-country regulation and, ultimately, international cooperation will be a necessity.

So, where to start?

EU action could be a game changer

One of the reasons that companies have struggled to respect their commitments is the complexity of the problem. There are many commodities driving deforestation, in many producer countries, and with specific supply chain characteristics.

A majority of the demand for agricultural commodities is, however, concentrated in the hands of a limited number of developed regions, the European Union (EU) being one of them.

The EU is the second biggest importer of agricultural products resulting from deforestation. It is the world’s largest importer of raw cocoa, responsible for over 60 percent of global imports, the second most important importer of soy and of palm oil and one of the major importers of beef from South America.

All in all, Europe’s demand deforested an area the size of Portugal between 1990 and 2005, according to the EU’s own calculations.

“Getting the bads out of the goods” shows how important government regulation is to achieving meaningful change on the ground. Because of its high consumption, Europe is a natural starting point for regulation and any measure could trigger an effect globally.

The EU knows how to become a global leader

The good news is that the EU has done a lot of the ground work necessary to act.

In March 2018, the European Commission published a feasibility study providing policy options to act on deforestation, including mandatory due diligence requirements to improve reporting and transparency efforts. Such measures would create a level-playing field for the agricultural and food sectors: it would force laggards to act and pull-up companies when they fail.

This study was followed by multiple calls to action, ranging from important Member States like Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Denmark, to Members of the European Parliament, progressive companies, and 124,000 worldwide citizens signing a petition.

There is significant momentum and it is now up to the European Commission to seize the opportunity and propose an EU Action Plan to protect forests and respect forest people’s rights. By doing so, Europe will show that it is serious about its international commitments to halt deforestation by 2020 and is willing to be a leader.

But it must act urgently as the clock is ticking. There are only 18 months left until 2020…

Fire burns in forest, illegally enabling farmers to enlarge fields of soy in the Chaco region, Argentina. Photo Credit: Jim Wickens/2017.

Nicole Polsterer is a Sustainable Consumption and Production Campaigner for Fern. She has 17 years experience in development and environmental cooperation, notably with the United Nations Development and Environmental Programmes, the European Commission and Parliament, research institutes, and think tanks. Her present focus is on reducing EU consumption of products that harm forests globally.

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