Zero-deforestation policies have had little impact on Amazon forest clearance

A team of researchers has stated that more companies must implement zero-deforestation policies in order to significantly reduce deforestation and protect diverse ecosystems.

Corporate pledges to not buy soybeans produced on land deforested after 2006, only reduced tree clearance in the Brazilian Amazon by 1.6% between 2006 and 2015. This equates to a protected area of 2,300km2 in the Amazon rainforest.

The findings, made by tracing traders’ soy supplies back to their source, were published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The work was a collaborative project, involving researchers from the University of Cambridge, Boston University, ETH Zurich, and New York University.

The demand for soy and its impact on ecosystems

The researchers also discovered that in the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savannah, zero-deforestation commitments have not been adopted effectively – leaving over 50% of soy-suitable forests and their biodiversity without protection.

Brazil has the largest remaining tropical forests on the planet, but these are being rapidly cleared to rear cattle and grow crops, such as soybean. The demand for soy is surging around the world, with an estimated 4,800km2 of rainforests being cleared each year to grow soybeans.

The majority of soy is consumed indirectly by humans, as it is widely used as feed for factory-farmed chickens, pigs, fish, and cattle. Moreover, it accounts for around 27% of global vegetable oil production, and as a complete protein source, it often forms a key part of vegetarian and vegan diets.

Companies are not committing to their forest-friendly pledges

By 2021, at least 94 companies had adopted zero-deforestation policies, pledging to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. However, the study revealed that many of these commitments are not put into practice.

The researchers identified small and medium food companies as the key culprits for this. “Zero-deforestation pledges are a great first step, but they need to be implemented to have an effect on forests – and right now it’s mainly the bigger companies that have the resources to do this,” said Professor Rachael Garrett, Moran Professor of Conservation and Development at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and a senior co-author of the report.

She added: “If soybean traders actually implemented their global commitments for zero-deforestation production, current levels of forest clearance in Brazil could be reduced by around 40%.”

Expanding zero-deforestation policies beyond soy

Deforestation is the second largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, after fossil fuel use. It also causes the loss of diverse animal and plant life, threatens the livelihoods of Indigenous groups, and increases inequality and conflict.

The researchers stated that the supply chains of other food products, including cattle, oil palm, and cocoa supply chains are more complex than soy, making them even more difficult to monitor.

Garrett stated: “If supply chain policies intend to contribute to the task of tackling deforestation in Brazil, it’s crucial to expand zero-deforestation supply chain policies beyond soy.”

A ‘soy moratorium’ was the first voluntary zero-deforestation policy in the tropics. By signing it, companies agreed not to buy soybeans produced on land deforested after 2006. However, while the commitment was implemented in the Brazilian Amazon, most Brazilian soy is produced in the Cerrado – which is rich in biodiversity.

The researchers said their findings suggest that private sector efforts are not enough to half deforestation, and that supportive political leadership is vital to conservation efforts.

“Supply chain governance should not be a substitute for state-led forest policies, which are critical to enable zero-deforestation monitoring and enforcement, have better potential to cover different crops, land users, and regions,” Garrett concluded.

In 2021, the COP26 Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, committed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. It was signed by over 100 countries, and represented 85% of global forests.

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