Rainforest protection laws offer ray of sunshine

New laws to slow down deforestation are not perfect, but they will force large food companies to improve their sourcing of sustainable commodities. David Burrows reports.

The UK Government has just launched a new consultation, which should be music to the ears of campaigners that have for years warned that efforts to curb deforestation have failed.

New legislation would make it illegal for businesses to use, either in production or trade within the UK, “forest risk commodities that have not been produced in compliance with relevant laws of the country in which they are grown”. Businesses would also be required to have a “robust system of due diligence in place, and to report on it, to show that they have taken proportionate action to ensure their supply is legal”.

Large UK businesses could also face fines for using commodities like soya, palm oil and beef grown on land that was deforested illegally.

The government has reached for the stick because the carrot hasn’t worked. Demand for commodities like soya, palm oil and beef has outpaced company-led policies, newspaper exposés and regular NGO scorecards designed to halt the production of these crops on forests and other habitats rich in biodiversity, like the Cerrado in Brazil.

As Footprint reported earlier this year, in a decade of assessments conducted by WWF progress in relation to sourcing of sustainable palm oil had been “encouraging albeit slow” across major foodservice and hospitality companies.

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

So is this the moment that everyone has been waiting for? Will these new rules make a difference and what will it mean for the foodservice and hospitality sector?

“There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is consulting on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws,” said international environment minister Lord Goldsmith.

The new laws would see businesses required to carry out due diligence on their supply chains by publishing information to show where key commodities – for example, cocoa, rubber, soya and palm oil – came from. This was a key recommendation of the Global Resource Initiative, which has advised government on how to make international supply chains “greener and leave a lighter footprint on the global environment”.

Deforestation accounts for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Around 80% of deforestation is caused by the production of agricultural commodities and most deforestation is illegal, the government noted. “The proposed legislation makes clear that illegally produced commodities have no place in the UK market,” reads a statement on the Defra website.

Research published in July showed that around a fifth of Brazil’s annual exports to the EU are potentially contaminated with illegal deforestation.

James Corlett, a partner specialising in franchising, advertising and commercial law at international law firm Fieldfisher, said the proposal marks “a step towards improving environmental governance in the UK and internationally”.

However, campaigners said the rules are “seriously flawed”. Elena Polisano, forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “There is also nothing in the proposals to address the fact that some commodity producers may have one ‘sustainable’ line but continue to destroy forests elsewhere. This just shifts the problem into someone else’s backyard.”

Polisano said companies that were serious about reducing their deforestation needed to cut the amount of meat and dairy products they sell and “drop forest destroyers from their supply chain immediately”.

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.

Lord Goldsmith said “there has been a lot of progress already to make the UK’s supply chains more sustainable, but more needs to be done”.

The new laws will add to a growing body of existing UK legislation requiring companies to check their supply chains are compliant with environment social governance laws including the Bribery Act, the Modern Slavery Act, the Animal Welfare Act and the EU's REACH legislation on chemicals.

“The evidence linking deforestation with climate change, biodiversity loss and the spread of zoonotic diseases is compelling,” said Ruth Chambers from the Greener UK coalition. “A new law is an important part of the solution and is urgently needed. The government’s flagship Environment Bill provides a timely vehicle to progress this.”

Businesses have been under more scrutiny from customers and regulators in relation to their sourcing policies. However, this scrutiny is likely to increase on the back of the covid-19 pandemic.

Forest fires in Brazil have also been front-page news. More than 20,000 fires were detected in the Amazon in August this year; this followed an increase in deforestation alerts of 33% since last year.

A survey conducted by WWF-UK in July found that 67% of the public believe the government should be doing more to tackle destruction in the Amazon. What’s more, 81% of people said there should be greater transparency of the origin of the products imported into the UK; 73% said the UK should stop trading with countries that fail to protect the natural environment.

Corlett said: “Recent scrutiny on the impact some large companies are having on the environment suggests a number of businesses may already be pushing the boundaries of legal and ethical practice. While big business is not the only culprit, the focus of the proposed legislation on larger companies is appropriate, as the obligations should filter down through smaller suppliers.”

The government has not confirmed which businesses will fall under the scope of the new law. However, the consultation notes that the legislation will target “a relatively small number of larger businesses that use forest risk commodities in production or trade in the UK, and meet an employee number and turnover threshold”.

Many major food retailers and manufacturers are likely to fall under the scope of the new law. More difficult to determine is which foodservice and hospitality firms will.

For example, foodservice companies use relatively little palm oil: those assessed in the 2019 scorecard compiled by WWF claimed to use 294,368 tonnes in 2018, representing just 3% of the total palm oil usage across all three sectors assessed (which also included retail and manufacturing).

However, there are “questions regarding how accurately this sector – and to a certain extent all the sectors – have been at quantifying their actual dependence on palm oil via their declared volumes”, said WWF.

There is little data on the amount of soya used by the sector but a report by Eating Better, published earlier this year, suggested that around 3 million tonnes of soya are imported into the UK each year, with 60% of it used by the poultry industry.

A survey of supermarkets and fast food brands by Greenpeace, also published this year, showed that “none of the companies surveyed could guarantee the soya they use for meat production was deforestation-free”. The likes of McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Nando’s and Subway “refused to disclose their meat sales or soya use altogether”, Greenpeace reported.

If the government gets its way, they will soon have to.

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