Around 15% of all emissions resulting from the typical diet of an EU citizen can be directly linked to deforestation of tropical forests, according to new research.
The link between production of certain foods – such as palm oil, beef and soy – and deforestation has long been established.
However, two new studies, from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, show the extent to which deforestation in the tropics is linked to food production and then where the foods are eventually consumed.
In the first study, the researchers focused on how the expansion of cropland, pastures, and forestry plantations has taken place at the expense of the rainforest. They found that “more than half of deforestation” is due to production of food and animal feed, such as beef, soy and palm oil. There is considerable variation between different countries and goods, but overall, exports account for “about a fourth of that deforestation which is connected to food production”.
The researchers used this information for a second study, in which they determined the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from production and where the produce is then consumed. They found that, on average, a sixth of the emissions from a typical EU diet could be directly traced back to deforestation in the tropics. It is a similar figure for the average UK citizen.
The experts also discovered that emissions from imports are high when compared with the EU’s domestic agricultural emissions. For several EU countries, import emissions connected to deforestation are equivalent to more than half of the emissions from their own, national agricultural production.
"In effect, you could say that the EU imports large amounts of deforestation every year,” said Martin Persson, one of the researchers. “If the EU really wants to achieve its climate goals, it must set harder environmental demands on those who export food to the EU.”
The EU already has strict requirements in place connected to deforestation, which producers of timber and wood products must adhere to in order to export their goods to the EU. Plans are afoot to expand this to food.
At the turn of the year, the European Commission published a roadmap, “Stepping up EU action against deforestation and forest degradation”. A consultation has been completed but it remains unclear what policy options or new laws will be introduced.
Persson suggested that voluntary action taken by food companies is not working. The “groundswell of zero deforestation pledges”, many of which have a 2020 deadline, has not resulted in much action, he told FoodNavigator. The latest Forest 500 report, published in March, showed that whilst commitments to reduce deforestation have snowballed, implementation remained weak.