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Will the EU get deforestation off our dinner plates? (commentary)


  • The European Commission is drafting a plan to address deforestation linked with commodity supply chains.
  • But Nico Muzi, Europe Director of global environmental group Mighty Earth and member of the EU Commission Expert Group on protecting and restoring the world’s forests, argues the measure has a significant loophole for soy-based animal feed and leather from Brazil.
  • “The leaked plan has several major loopholes that would substantially and unnecessarily weaken its impact even as deforestation in Brazil surges,” Muzi writes. “Even while the law would protect parts of the Amazon rainforest, it would still allow big agriculture companies like Cargill to continue to drive large-scale deforestation right next door in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna and Pantanal wetlands and export the products of that destruction to Europe.”
  • The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Europe is one of the largest drivers of tropical deforestation in the world, second only to China. That’s why the European Commission is drafting a plan to break the link between consumption in Europe and forest destruction around the world. It would represent a major step forward to fight deforestation, which destroyed an area the size of the United Kingdom in 2020 alone. But the leaked plan has several major loopholes that would substantially and unnecessarily weaken its impact even as deforestation in Brazil surges. Those loopholes are big enough to drive a bulldozer through and seem primarily geared as a sop to the industrial agriculture corporations affected by the law.

Even while the law would protect parts of the Amazon rainforest, it would still allow big agriculture companies like Cargill to continue to drive large-scale deforestation right next door in Brazil’s Cerrado savannas and Pantanal wetlands and export the products of that destruction to Europe. It would even exclude leather from scrutiny, even though cattle is the world’s largest driver of deforestation and agricultural climate pollution. It would neglect rubber, despite rubber-growing nations like Cambodia and Vietnam having among the world’s historically highest rates of recent deforestation. And it would also disregard the right of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral land.

EU climate czar Timmermans knows the importance of protecting the world’s remaining forests and their most loyal guardians, the Indigenous Peoples. And he is not alone in this crusade. But he is up against powerful vested interests in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Will Timmermans handle this fight with the same determination that he showed with the Fit for 55 package, or will he give in to Bolsonaro, Big Agri and the EU animal feed industry?

A scorched animal skull revealed in the aftermath of a fire. Fire is often used as a tool for converting forests and other native vegetation to croplands in Brazil, destroying biodiversity. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth.

Game over for South America’s savannas and wetlands

Let’s zoom in on one of those major loopholes: soy animal feed. Soy to feed chickens, pigs and cows has caused more deforestation than any other commodity imported into the EU between 2005 and 2017, even more than palm oil. Around 70% of this destruction was concentrated in one critical biome, Brazil’s Cerrado.

The Cerrado is South America’s largest tropical savanna, providing a home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, including threatened species like the jaguar, giant anteater, maned wolf, and marsh deer. Scientists describe the Cerrado as an ‘upside-down forest’ because its root system is immense and stores around 13.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

If the Commission fails to include the protection of savannas and wetlands in the upcoming regulation, the EU anti-deforestation law would be letting off the hook the single largest cause of deforestation driven by EU consumption: soy animal feed from Brazil.

The Cerrado destruction cannot be more acute. Half of the Cerrado is gone already to make way for soy and cattle – an area as big as France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands together. And there’s no sign of trend reversal: deforestation in the Cerrado in the first eight months of 2021 was 25% higher than in 2020.

The Environment Department of the European Commission argues that savannas, wetlands and peatland can be added at a later stage, once the regulation had been tested. However, the vertiginous pace of land clearance in the Cerrado and the stark warning of the latest IPCC report don’t grant us that extra time. Every year, approximately 140,000 hectares of Cerrado native vegetation is converted into soy. That means that if we have to wait five years to review the regulation and include other natural ecosystems, there would be an extra 700,000 hectares deforested – an area eight times the size of Berlin.

And it could get even worse. Back in 2006, thanks to NGO campaigning and an international outcry, the world’s largest soy traders, big landowners and the government agreed to stop soy expansion in the Amazon. The industry-wide voluntary agreement, dubbed Amazon Soy Moratorium, put an end to deforestation driven by soy in the Brazilian Amazon overnight but didn’t include other critical ecosystems such as the Cerrado savanna where bulldozers have relentlessly kept going.

This means that if the Commission sets out to only protect forests, soy expansion in South America will shift from the Amazon basin and the dry forests of Gran Chaco (another soy frontier) to the Cerrado biome, adding fuel to the pervasive fires in Brazil.

Aerial view of new soy fields and neighboring forest in the Brazilian Cerrado. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth.

People, businesses and MEPs demand a strong EU law

Europe’s voracious appetite for industrial meat is to blame for the bulldozing of the Cerrado. More than 80% of soy used in Europe goes to feed chickens, pigs and cows.

Shoppers in Europe don’t know the meat they buy in supermarkets is linked to the bulldozing of forests and woody savanna land. When told, four in five Europeans think that governments should oblige supermarkets to act on deforestation. In fact, a record 1.2 million citizens (the second most participated public consultation in the history of the EU) urged the Commission to go beyond forest protection and include natural ecosystems such as savannas, wetlands and peatland in the law.

And because their customers are demanding deforestation- and conversion-free products, businesses also support strong regulation. In May, 70 big companies such as supermarket chains Carrefour and Lidl, foodmakers Danone and Ferrero, cosmetics brands L’Oreal and The Body Shop (and even Groupe Avril, France’s largest animal feed producer) urged the EU to protect savannas.

And the European Parliament is firmly behind it too.

The Brazilian Cerrado is inhabited by 60 IUCN-listed vulnerable animal species, including the Cerrado or hoary fox (Lycalopex vetulus). Image by Jim Wickens/Mighty Earth.

Timmermans’s moment

The biggest opponents of protecting critical ecosystems such as savannas and wetlands are Bolsonaro and his powerful allies the ruralistas, the big landowners in Brazil. But they are not operating alone. The agribusiness lobby in the country, mainly Abiove, has the complicity of Cargill and Bunge, the world’s largest soy traders, who are making shiploads of money by bringing forest-ravaging soy to Europe. In August, Cargill reported the highest profit in its 156-year history.

Both Cargill and Bunge have a strong say in the three European industry groups most actively lobbying against strong EU law: COCERAL (the EU grains and oilseeds association), FEDIOL (the European vegetable oil and protein-meal industry) and FEFAC (the European animal feed industry). These three EU lobby groups have an interest in preserving the status quo, putting profits over nature and pushing  “against clear benchmarks for what deforestation-free should mean.”

The irony is that it’s perfectly possible to stop further conversion of habitats in the Cerrado and grow more soy on the seven million hectares that have already been cleared, mostly for low-productivity cattle pastures. But any attempt to stop the expansion of the agricultural frontier to the detriment of forests, savannas and wetlands is heresy for the acolytes of the ‘bulldoze, baby, bulldoze’ ideology.

Vice-President Timmermans made it to Time Magazine’s list of most influential figures – a well-deserved recognition – thanks to his determination to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. This anti-deforestation law is a huge opportunity for the EU climate czar to show the same resolve and close the massive loopholes in the regulation. Europeans will thank him for standing up to Bolsonaro and Big Agri like Cargill and getting deforestation off our dinner plates.

Header image: Soy-forest boundary. Photo credit: Mighty Earth

Nico Muzi is Europe Director of global environmental group Mighty Earth and member of the EU Commission Expert Group on protecting and restoring the world’s forests.

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