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Despite a decade of zero-deforestation vows, forest loss continues: Greenpeace

More than half the Cerrado biome in Brazil has already been lost to agribusiness. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

  • Nearly a decade after the Board of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) passed a resolution to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 when sourcing commodities such as soya, palm oil, beef, and paper products, these commodities continue to drive widespread deforestation, a new report from Greenpeace says.
  • Greenpeace contacted 66 companies, asking them to demonstrate their progress in ending deforestation by disclosing their cattle, cocoa, dairy, palm oil, pulp and paper and soya suppliers. Of the companies that did respond, most came back with only partial information.
  • The report concludes that not a single company could demonstrate “meaningful effort to eradicate deforestation from its supply chain.”
  • Other experts say that transparency in supply chains is improving, and that measuring compliance to zero-deforestation goals requires more nuanced research.

In 2010, the Board of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an organization comprised of around 400 of the world’s retail and manufacturing companies, passed a resolution to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020. Acknowledging that deforestation is a major driver of climate change, the forum said it would work toward eliminating deforestation when sourcing commodities whose production typically involves some amount of forest clearing, such as soy (also called “soya”), palm oil, beef, and paper products.

Yet nearly a decade later, these commodities still continue to drive widespread deforestation, a new report from Greenpeace says.

Since the resolution in 2010, companies such as Nestlé, Unilever, Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources have come up with their own policies to achieve zero deforestation in the supply chains of one or more commodities, with the number of commitments increasing over the years. But recent reports show that most companies are not on track to achieve their own stated goals by the 2020 deadline. Greenpeace’s new report, too, paints a gloomy picture.

“We thought it would be bad, but it’s a total disaster,” Richard George, head of forests at Greenpeace U.K., told Mongabay.

In 2018 and 2019, Greenpeace wrote to 66 companies, including consumer goods companies, fast-food retailers, meat and dairy producers, and commodities traders, asking them to “demonstrate their progress in ending deforestation by disclosing their cattle, cocoa, dairy, palm oil, pulp and paper and soya suppliers.”

Of the companies that did respond, most came back with only partial information, the report says. Some 19 provided details on their palm oil suppliers, and nine disclosed information about their cocoa, packaging or soy suppliers, George said in an email.

“Generally companies disclosed their tier one (or direct) suppliers — that is, the companies they do business with,” he said. “What they weren’t disclosing was the farms, plantations or point of harvest for their commodities — they lack all of this information or aren’t willing to share it with us.”

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Take meat and dairy, for example. The industry continues to be a major driver of deforestation, especially in South America, yet the production of soy, which is used mainly as animal feed, has more than quadrupled in the past two decades in Brazil, and doubled globally since 1997, according to the report.

“Yet not a single brand contacted by Greenpeace was able to demonstrate that it was tracking the amount of soya consumed as animal feed in its supply chain — including by meat and dairy producers or their customers — let alone whether the supply of soya-based animal feed was contributing to forest destruction,” the report notes.

Companies that did give Greenpeace some information on their soy supply chains mentioned suppliers that are associated with deforestation, George said. These include Cargill, Bunge and ADM — companies that have made voluntary commitments, too, but have been associated with deforestation in the Brazilian Cerrado. The three companies were among the biggest soy exporters from the Cerrado in 2017.

Around 90 percent of soy goes toward animal feed, George said, “but companies that use meat and dairy aren’t even checking how much soya is being fed to the animals in their supply chains. No wonder soya is the second greatest driver of deforestation.”

Overall, the Greenpeace report says that not a single company could demonstrate “meaningful effort to eradicate deforestation from its supply chain.” In fact, the companies were failing at the first hurdle itself: knowing where their commodities were coming from, George said. “Traceability to plantation/farm/point of harvest is the first step to determining whether the producers you source from are clearing forest or not,” he said.

The report concludes that “companies that are unwilling or unable to do what is needed to fix the global commodity trade and keep forest destroyers out of their supply chains must instead avoid high-risk commodities entirely.”

This conclusion may be misguided, though, said Rachael Garrett, an assistant professor at Boston University, who’s been researching zero-deforestation commitments.

“Many of the forest risk commodities, in particular soy and oil palm, are very efficient from a land use perspective, that is, they are high yielding,” she said in an email. “It is possible that a switch toward other commodities that have lower yields could lead to a greater land use footprint in the long run.”

Whether companies can meet their zero-deforestation commitments also depends on what one expects the commitments to achieve. If the expectation is for a company to eliminate deforestation just within their supply chain, that’s technically possible, Garrett said. If the expectation is, however, for zero-deforestation commitments to eliminate deforestation globally while not leading to spillovers to other non-forest ecosystems or to deforestation in other commodity supply chains — that, she said, is expecting too much from the commitments.

“Global elimination of deforestation from internationally traded commodities will only be possible if one hundred percent of the market and actors for all forest-risk commodities committed to zero-deforestation sourcing and implement adequate procedures for tracking and monitoring all direct and indirect suppliers,” Garrett added. “Even a scenario of 100% market share across all commodities could have unanticipated consequences, such as driving land users to pursue other livelihood activities that result in deforestation.”

Recently cleared Cerrado. Analysts worry that without immediate action, the opportunity to save what’s left of this unique savanna biome could be lost. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The Greenpeace report adds to the growing concern that many companies with zero-deforestation commitments aren’t reporting their progress. But measuring a company’s compliance to such commitments requires a very high level of transparency, and that’s not easily achieved. The government of Indonesia, for example, recently advised the country’s palm oil companies to not share their plantation data with other parties like external consultants, NGOs and foreign agencies, citing national security, privacy and competition reasons.

It’s not all gloom, though, some experts say.

“From my perspective, it looks more like the global supply chain has bifurcated into good and bad actors, and transparency is improving, but good actors aren’t really being rewarded, while bad actors aren’t really paying a price — at least not consistently,” said Steve Zwick, editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, an initiative of conservation nonprofit Forest Trends.

Overall, the Greenpeace report is useful for raising public consciousness about environmental and social impacts of commodity chains, Garrett said, but she added “more nuanced research with better consideration of culpability and tradeoffs in the context of rigorous policy analysis is needed.”

“It is also why academics have an obligation to engage directly with companies and governments to present the findings of our research and help these actors improve their policies,” she said.

Banner image of the Brazilian Cerrado by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.