20% of Brazil’s soya and beef exports to Europe are linked to deforestation

Around a fifth of Brazil's annual exports to the EU are potentially contaminated with illegal deforestation, according to new research.

Experts used freely available maps and data from 815,000 rural properties to reveal the specific farmers and ranchers clearing forests to produce soya and beef ultimately destined for Europe.

They discovered that a few bad apples were tainting the exports to an alarming extent. “Although most of Brazil's agricultural output is deforestation-free, we find that 2% of properties in the Amazon and Cerrado are responsible for 62% of all potentially illegal deforestation and that roughly 20% of soya exports and at least 17% of beef exports from both biomes to the EU may be contaminated with illegal deforestation,” they wrote.

The findings come just as a new trade deal between the bloc and Latin American countries is being finalised. If agreed, the flow of commodities will increase.

However, campaigners have argued that the deal between EU and Mercosur countries was concluded without seriously considering its environmental and social impacts. Earlier this month, the European Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the agreement.

Roughly 41%, or 13.6 million metric tonnes, of the EU's soya imports come from Brazil each year. Some 69% come from the Amazon and Cerrado regions, according to the new research. In most cases, the recently cleared areas are not used to grow soya in order to comply with the rules of the soya moratorium agreement. But this has not prevented soya farms from clearing their lands illegally for pasturelands and other crops, the experts noted.

According to the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya, an estimated 27% of the soya consumed in the UK is now covered by a conversion- or deforestation-free standard. That is up from the 15% baseline in October 2018.

Soya is used to feed livestock, in particular chickens and pigs. But over half the soya used to feed poultry in the UK is not certified deforestation-free, according to Eating Better.

Meanwhile, by analysing the flows of cattle between ranches, the new study also showed that 60% of all slaughtered animals could have been “potentially contaminated with illegal deforestation” – 44% in the Amazon and 66% in the Cerrado – at some point in the supply chain.

The researchers found that producers on 45% of rural Amazon properties and 48% of rural Cerrado properties that supply soya and beef for exports are failing to comply with limits on deforestation laid out in Brazil's Forest Code. Of 53,000 properties producing soya in both regions, 20% have grown the crop on land deforested after 2008; the authors estimated that half this soya was produced on recently illegally deforested land.

“Policymakers in Brussels finally have the information they need to assess the extent of the problem in the Brazilian soya and beef sectors,” said Professor Britaldo Soares-Filho, co-author of the paper published in Science.

In 2010, 400 of the world’s major consumers goods brands pledged to “achieve zero net deforestation by 2020”. The target will not be met.

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