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Report: Soy, cattle industries trail palm oil, timber on deforestation risk

The cattle industry is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

  • The report says the soybean and cattle industries lack certification bodies like the RSPO that were created after consumer pressure.
  • Among soybean and cattle producers, Glencore Agriculture, JBS and Minerva scored worst on indicators for forest risk.
  • The two industries have a significant role in the deforestation of the Amazon and Brazil’s Cerrado biome.

Corporations that trade in four forest-risk commodities are failing to do enough to prevent deforestation in their supply chains, according to new analysis by the Climate Disclosure Project (CDP), an NGO that works with businesses and governments to track their environmental impacts. The paper points an accusing finger at the cattle and soy industries in particular, saying that their practices lag far behind those of companies that trade in other commodities.

“The focus on deforestation today has been on timber and palm oil despite the fact that cattle has been one of its major drivers between 2005 and 2015,” said Ling Sin Fai Lam, lead analyst at CDP and one of the authors of the report.

According to the report, companies operating in the agriculture and logging industries drive more than 80% of global deforestation, with soy, palm oil, cattle, and timber being largely to blame. Lam says that a combination of consumer pressure and certification schemes have forced changes in the timber and palm oil sectors, while soy and cattle companies continue to operate with few checks and balances despite their heavy footprint in the Amazon and other forest regions.

“A lot of these companies have no visibility on where the cow might have been reared or if at some point in its life cycle it may have grazed on deforested land,” Lam told Mongabay. “And our analysis shows that all the cattle and soy companies in our sample continue to operate in the Amazon, which has the highest rate of tree loss.”

The boom in global demand for beef and soybeans has pushed the Amazon into crisis, with one recent analysis of NASA satellite data concluding that forest fires were likelier to occur near industrial meatpacking pants and soybean silos than in other areas.

Part of the reason why has to do with their supply chains. Major traders like JBS and Cargill typically purchase cattle and soybeans directly from smaller companies and independent farmers. Cows often pass through multiple hands before reaching a slaughterhouse, and Lam says the big industry players that operate them aren’t doing nearly enough to make sure their suppliers aren’t contributing to deforestation.

“Companies like Minerva and JBS don’t actually provide any evidence of traceability beyond the fattening farms where cattle goes before it gets slaughtered, but throughout the life cycle of the cattle it could actually move through quite a few farms before it gets there,” Lam said.

Of the 10 major soy and cattle producers analyzed in the report, Glencore Agriculture, JBS, and Minerva Foods ranked at the bottom of a list of indicators developed by CDP to evaluate deforestation risks. All three companies have made commitments to fight deforestation, but CDP’s report says their efforts are falling far short of what’s needed to protect tropical forests.

JBS, for example, claims to prevent deforestation in its direct supply chain, but says it isn’t able to monitor all of its indirect suppliers. This summer, an investigation revealed evidence that it continued to work with some of those suppliers that had been sanctioned for illegal deforestation.

And Cargill has dismissed the idea of a moratorium on the production of soy inside the Cerrado, a forested savanna region of Brazil that boasts some of the highest biodiversity in South America. Like in the cattle industry, most large soybean traders purchase the commodity from smaller local operations.

Demand for the legumes has skyrocketed in recent years, largely as a result of China’s appetite for the pigs that feed on them.

“Just four out of the seven soy companies that we covered provided any clarity on soy certification,” Lam said.

In contrast, the report says the palm oil and timber industries have made progress in recent years, largely via participation in certification platforms that bring civil society, governments, and producers together to monitor plantation operations. The 10 palm oil producers covered in the report are together responsible for managing nearly half of the total land certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO); and 68% of the timber produced by companies included in CDP’s analysis was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

But even those certification bodies have been critiqued by environmental campaigners, and some say it would be misleading to point to them as a standard that the beef and soy industries should mimic.

“Industrial agricultural commodities responsible for the majority of deforestation worldwide are not regulated and therefore continue to drive the climate crisis through unfettered environmental destruction and human rights violations,” said Gaurav Madan, senior forests and lands campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “This blind spot in regulation comes in part due to an overreliance on voluntary corporate commitments and sustainability certification schemes, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.”

Lam says the better track record of the palm oil and timber industries in recent years doesn’t mean they are entirely off the hook.

“It’s all relative, and at the end of the day we know that deforestation is still happening for all these commodities,” she said. “But we’d really like to see cattle and soy get up to where palm oil and timber is.”

In the long run, she adds, the main takeaway of the analysis is that the world isn’t doing nearly enough to tackle the impact that forest-risk industries are having on climate-critical forests.

“The world needs to make systemic changes to the global food system,” she said.

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