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France falls short in ending deforestation linked to imported soy

  • A new agreement signed by eight grocery store chains in France is aimed at ending the importation of soybeans grown on deforested lands.
  • France introduced a national strategy to address deforestation in supply chains in 2018.
  • But environmental and watchdog NGOs say the country must go beyond voluntary commitments from companies and mandate an end to trade with producers linked to deforestation.

Eight French supermarket chains will now require that their suppliers obtain soybeans that were not grown on deforested land, according to the Washington, D.C.-based environmental NGO Mighty Earth.

The announcement said the retailers’ contracts will now bar soy coming from deforested parts of the Cerrado, a mix of savanna and dry forests covering 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) in Brazil. Clearing of land to grow crops like soy has led to the disappearance of half the Cerrado’s natural forests and grasslands.

“French supermarkets are finally listening to their customers’ concerns and leading an industry-wide effort to clean up the entire French soy supply chain,” Etelle Higonnet, a senior campaign director with Mighty Earth, said in a Nov. 18 statement.

A map showing the extent of the Cerrado biome in Brazil. Image by Terpsichores via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Companies such as Carrefour, France’s second-largest grocery chain, had previously laid out plans to reduce the connection between the products it sells and deforestation by 2020, according to its website. The companies Auchan, Casino, E. Leclerc, Lidl, Metro, Mousquetaires and Système U joined Carrefour in signing on to the agreement to change their contracts with suppliers.

The agreement is missing key players such as agribusiness corporations such as Cargill and Bunge, as well as soy supply chain companies like COFCO and Louis Dreyfus, Higonnet said. She called on French firms to stop doing business with them if they don’t agree to require deforestation-free soy by Jan. 1, 2021.

The move comes two years after the French government began its national strategy to fight imported deforestation, known by the French acronym SNDI. The 2018 inception of the strategy made France a leader in the battle against importing deforestation-tinged products. But Mighty Earth and other organizations say that voluntary commitments alone won’t be enough to stamp out deforestation in Brazil for soybeans. They also say that France will fall short of its 2015 pledge to end deforestation for the agricultural products it imports by the end of 2020.

The Rio das Mortes in Brazil and the surrounding flooded grassland and gallery forest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The retailers’ announcement follows a September 2020 report (in French) by the watchdog NGO Canopée based in Angers, France. Soybeans are primarily used as a protein-rich food source for poultry, pigs and dairy cattle in France and throughout Europe, but they’re also associated with more deforestation than any other imported crop. France imported nearly 3.2 million metric tons of soybean meal in 2019 — a 9% increase compared to 2018, most of it from Brazil — as well as almost 600,00 metric tons of soybeans. Together, that’s enough to fill between 60 and 70 cargo ships a year, according to the report.

Scientists credit a 2006 moratorium on new soy plantations in the Amazon rainforest for helping to slow deforestation there. But an unintended consequence of the suspension was a spike in forest loss in the neighboring Cerrado.

While the pace of deforestation for soy in the Cerrado has tapered somewhat in recent years, the authors of the Canopée report cite statistics revealing that the crop has still led to the loss of an average of 6,900 square kilometers (2,660 square miles) of natural vegetation per year between 2009 and 2019. They note that some 4,800 species live in the Cerrado and nowhere else on Earth. And they say the average size of soybean plantations there, at 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres), dwarfs the average farm size of 70 ha (173 acres) in Brazil, potentially leading to land conflicts.

The Cuyaba dwarf frog (Physalaemus nattereri), a species found only in the open grasslands of the Cerrado. Image by Felipe Gomes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

The team writes that technical solutions exist to end deforestation-linked soy, but that they won’t reach their potential without systemic legal and political changes.

“The supermarkets’ manifesto sends a very strong market signal, but to go beyond mere words, this voluntary measure needs to be rapidly transformed into consistent action plans,” Klervi Le Guenic, campaign officer with Canopée, said in the Mighty Earth statement.

Also on Nov. 18, Mighty Earth and Canopée joined seven other environmental organizations in publishing an op-ed in the newspaper Ouest-France warning that France’s SNDI doesn’t go far enough in the fight to end import-related deforestation.

Deforestation for cattle pasture and soy in the Cerrado. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The organizations note that, in 2018, officials pointed to 2020 as a benchmark year, when they could take stock of the results of the SNDI and “if necessary, take further binding measures.”

“We are there,” the organizations write in the op-ed. They said that the French government must develop a traceability system for imported products and require companies to come up with plans to end deforestation in their supply chains to “finally put an end to France’s complicity in deforestation.”

Banner image of soybean cultivation in Brazil by Roosevelt Pinheiro/ABr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 BR). 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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