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Trase.earth tracks commodities, links supply chains to deforestation risk

Aerial view of new Cerrado forest clearing. Roughly half the deforestation occurring in the Cerrado is legal, say analysts, highlighting the need for legislation to protect this biome – important for its biodiversity, aquifers and carbon storage. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

A handful of companies account for half of South American exports of major commodities – including soy, palm oil, cane sugar and cocoa – according to a new report by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy. Soy production has expanded rapidly in Brazil, where exports are dominated by just six companies, with the majority of those exports feeding the ever-expanding Chinese demand for the oily bean.

The Trase Yearbook 2018 is the first in an annual series of reports tracking countries and companies involved in the trade of commodities such as soy, sugarcane, and maize, and assessing the deforestation risk associated with those crops, using data collated as part of the Transparency for Sustainable Economies (Trase) platform.

While the report itself is making news, so is Trase – a relatively new tool developed jointly by international non-profit organization (NGO) Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Global Canopy to improve transparency in supply chains globally. Until the advent of Trase, the tracking of commodities by investors, environmentalists, economists, journalists, consumers and other interested parties was largely hit and miss. With Trase a commodities supply chain can often be identified with a couple mouse clicks.

Linking commodities to deforestation

Significantly, Trase offers “the first [ever] systematic accounting of the total deforestation risk associated with downstream buyers [for a particular] commodity that’s driving deforestation,” says Toby Gardner, Senior Research Fellow at SEI who heads the new platform.

Prior to Trase, publicly available data on supply chains was limited to national-level statistics, allowing only crude analyses that often failed to identify the companies involved.

“Trase has made an enormous contribution to increase transparency in value chains and more specifically in soy in Brazil,” says Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto, Manager of Agricultural Certification at Imaflora, an NGO based in São Paulo, Brazil. “It is a revolutionary and useful tool for all actors involved in the trade of commodities.”

Trase was launched in 2016 and uses market research data on key commodities such as soy to track supply chains from the municipalities where the crops are produced, all the way to their international export.

Gardner hopes that the projects’ online visualizations and open-access data will “simplify what is an immensely complex picture into a very simple message,” for governments, companies, environmental NGOs and activists to act upon.

Cerrado soy feeds a booming global soy protein market. The Trase 2018 Yearbook tracks the Brazilian soy supply chain in detail, from producers to export. Image by Flávia Milhorance

The challenge of tracing soy

Soy production has expanded rapidly in South America in the last decade to meet growing market demand in Europe and Asia, largely for use as animal feed. Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay now provide almost half the world’s soy, up from just 3 percent in 1975. Brazil is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest soybean producer this year, with Brazil expected to produce 117 million tons.

Commodities like soy are challenging to trace thoroughly along an entire supply chain because beans from many farms are typically trucked, bulked and aggregated at large centralized storage and sorting facilities. “There is no such thing as traceability of a [single] soy bean,” says Gardner. For this reason, even commodities companies themselves often do not have full knowledge of their own supply chain sources.

To overcome this deficiency, Trase stiches together multiple datasets to identify “the most likely supply chain connections between a particular buyer and a particular landscape of production,” says Gardner. This estimation allows for the identification of landscape level effects, such as deforestation, which can then be more accurately allocated to specific traders.

Pinto warns that the strength of any particular Trase analysis depends on the availability of data. Gardner agrees, noting that Trase has performed particularly well for Brazil, where detailed data purchased from private market research companies could be combined with freely available data in government repositories and self-declared by companies.

As Trase expands its detailed analyses to other countries and commodities, analysts are encountering less complete datasets. Supply chains, they note, are more difficult to trace when commodities are exported not as raw crops, but as processed products. Argentina, for example, exports 80 percent of its soy as soy cake or oil.

“I think a lot of people would be shocked [to learn] that the accessibility of many of the datasets we use was much greater in Brazil than for many European Union countries,” Gardner says. In the EU, import and customs data for individual shipments is not available in the public domain.

Tracking the global soy trade

Although more than 1,000 companies exported soy from Brazil between 2005 and 2016, only a handful have commanded a significant share of the market. The Trase data shows that in 2016 it was dominated by just six key players – Bunge, Cargill, ADM, COFCO, Louis Dreyfus and Amaggi – which together accounted for 57 percent of soy exported. Over the last decade, these six companies have also been associated with more than 65 percent of the total deforestation in Brazil. None of the six companies responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

The dominance of so few very large companies “helps in pinpointing and targeting where the action is needed,” says Gardner, but “you’re dealing with a small number of incredibly powerful players,” which are unlikely to improve sustainability in their supply chains without governmental pressure and/or consumer willingness to pay a premium for that sustainability.

However, knowing the six principal soy traders linked to the bulk of deforestation could aid environmental NGOs in better targeting their campaigns as they try to implement a voluntary Soy Manifesto in Brazil’s Cerrado biome and maintain the Amazon Soy Moratorium.

One of the largest drivers of soy expansion across South America has been demand from China, with exports increasing 300 percent in the last decade, the Yearbook reports. China has increased their imports of Brazilian soy at the expense of exports from the U.S., Pinto says, which could have major ramifications for the future of sustainability in soy production. President Trump’s trade war with China could exacerbate shifts in soy trade patterns from the U.S. to Brazil. “We do not know the risks and sustainability consequences of these market battles,” says Pinto.

However, analysts do estimate that half of the total deforestation risk in Brazil during 2016 came as a result of soy exported to China. In addition, although the EU imports a smaller volume of soy from Brazil, its trade imposes a relatively higher level of deforestation risk per hectare harvested when compared to China, because a greater percentage of EU imported soy comes from regions of high deforestation risk.

Soy production was historically seen as a major threat to the Amazon rainforest. However, largely thanks to the success of the Amazon Soy Moratorium, most soy production and soy-associated deforestation now occurs outside the Amazon rainforest, particularly in the Cerrado savannah biome, which lies east and south of the Amazon basin.

“The Cerrado is the biggest frontier of soy expansion in the world,” says Gardner.

Spotlight on the Cerrado

The voluntary Amazon Soy Moratorium – negotiated between the soy industry, the Brazilian government and civil society organizations led by Greenpeace – originated in 2006. The traders pledged not to purchase soy grown on land in the Brazilian Amazon deforested after July 2006. Although the moratorium has been criticized for driving agricultural expansion into less well-protected habitats, such as the Cerrado, Gardner says that this was probably a geographical shift that was already in motion when the Moratorium was devised.

“It was really no skin off the industry’s nose to sign the soy moratorium because the Cerrado is a much better place to expand soy anyway,” as the land there is typically flatter and more suited to mechanized industrial agribusiness practices, and with better infrastructure.

Brazil’s latest agricultural frontier is centered in Matopiba, a portion of the Cerrado covering 730,000 square kilometers (281 855 square miles), and spread across 337 municipalities in the neighboring Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. Over 75 percent of Cerrado native vegetation cleared between 2006 and 2016 was in the Matopiba region, with soy production there soaring by 310 percent between 2001 and 2017. The reason for the rapid expansion is profit: the Matopiba soy crop boasted an estimated value of R $20 billion (US $5.3 billion) in 2015.

While Cerrado soy expansion has been linked to higher incomes and reduced poverty and illiteracy, the region has also experienced a rise in child mortality, increased conflicts between agribusiness and traditional communities over water and land, and an exodus of rural people to urban slums seeking jobs.

It is more challenging to assess and track deforestation in the Cerrado, which unlike the Amazon, is made up of a patchwork of dense vegetation and savannah. However, Trase estimates that in the Brazilian Cerrado, 20 percent of the total area in soy production in 2015 was covered in native vegetation as of the year 2000. Roughly half the deforestation occurring in the Cerrado is legal, say analysts, highlighting the need for legislation to protect this important ecosystem.

Protecting the Cerrado is “fundamental not only for [limiting] greenhouse gas emissions, but for water and biodiversity conservation,” says Pinto.

A protest by the Rainforest Action Network against Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge and Cargill at the Chicago Board of Trade. Despite Zero Deforestation Commitments made by transnational commodities companies, critics say that major traders have not done near enough to eliminate deforestation from their soy supply chains. Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

Deforestation commitments vs. ground truthing

Commodity trader commitments to reduce deforestation in recent years indicate an increased awareness by companies of the need to improve supply chain sustainability.

Five major traders – Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Amaggi, and Louis Dreyfus (LDC) – have now made commitments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains according to Gardner, with soy giant LDC the most recent to do so. In addition, large fines imposed by the Brazilian government on commodities traders guilty of buying from soy producers causing Cerrado deforestation could be a game changer.

However, the regional distribution of these commitments has been very uneven. For example, less than half of soy exported from the Cerrado biome in 2016 was covered by a zero-deforestation commitment (ZDC). The Cerrado Manifesto, which was developed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace in 2017 and calls for voluntarily pledges to stop clearing Cerrado native vegetation, has received more than 70 signatories so far, but none have come from major soy traders.

Also, these voluntary declarations to remove soy from company supply chains are far from being effectively implemented on the ground. So far, zero-deforestation commitments have not manifested in substantially reduced deforestation risk for those companies and countries that have made them. Between 2006 and 2016, soy traders with ZDCs were associated with similar levels of deforestation risk as compared to non-committed companies, according to the Yearbook.

“It’s not yet the case that those companies that have made commitments are showing much lower levels of deforestation risk,” reports Gardner.

Similarly at the national level, EU countries that are signatories to the 2015 Amsterdam Declaration, which aims to eliminate deforestation from agricultural supply chains, are associated with similar levels of deforestation risk as other EU nations.

Trase hopes to provide a baseline to track future progress towards ZDCs and other sustainability commitments to evaluate whether these strategies are effective.

New legislation, such as France’s Duty of Vigilance Law, shows the role importing governments can play. Implemented in 2017, the law requires companies with more than 5,000 employees to evaluate the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains around the world. “That’s unprecedented for a country to impose that requirement on its private sector,” says Gardner.

Pinto points out that existing definitions of sustainability also come up short. “Many companies, and even a few NGOs, consider deforestation-free soy as sustainable. This is a terrible mistake and a bad message for society,” he says. While the soy moratorium prohibits deforestation in the Amazon biome, as well as child labor and slave labor, he explains “sustainable soy would be linked not only to avoiding bad practices, but [also to implementing] good social, agronomic and environmental practices.”

Enhancing commodities trading transparency

Gardner sees a combination of government action, NGO campaign pressure and consumer choice as paving the way to increased transparency and sustainability, with Trase providing an accessible way for stakeholders to understand and explore commodity supply chains, and measure progress.

“We can now see in simple graphics the volume of soy traded either by company, municipality or country importer,” says Pinto. “This level of transparency allows governments, NGOs, retailers and the financial sector to have a wide and comprehensive understanding of the global trade flow.”

Significantly, there is no real need to continue deforestation in Brazil in order to meet the growing demand for commodities like soy, sources told Mongabay. According to report published in March by MightyEarth, and NGO, 650 million hectares (2.5 million square miles) of previously cleared land in Latin America could be used to grow soy.

Gardner explains: “It’s not necessarily that the brakes need to be put on soy production. [Instead] the growth of the industry needs to be directed to areas that have already been cleared and degraded.” However, the current political climate in Brazil encourages more deforestation, not less. “Clearing forest and land is cheaper and makes more sense [under current federal policies] than converting pasture to crops,” says Pinto.

Through a concerted effort – by turning degraded pasturelands to croplands, and by adopting improved productivity techniques – Brazil could satisfy global demand for soy without cutting down a single tree.

Soy is ubiquitous in thousands of products, with consumer demand driving soaring soy expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado, leading to a dramatic loss of native vegetation there. Most consumers have little awareness of what products contain soy, no less the tropical deforestation its production is causing. Photo on Visual Hunt
Clarification: This article was updated to note that Trase is a partnership between the Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy.

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