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Rainforest picnic: how to stop eating the Amazon this summer

Beef, soy and palm oil supply chains drive the burning and clearing of tropical forests for land

Commodities linked to the Amazon slip into food chains as stealthily as meat from a horse (Pic: Flickr/Nagyman)


By Andrew Mitchell

Summer is in full swing in the UK and many of us will head outdoors to enjoy a picnic. 

As you prowl round the supermarket shelves, have you ever thought about what might be hidden inside the food that you might put in your basket?

Transfats, GM crops and horsemeat have all provided scares but what about a rainforest?

The fact that we import huge amounts of our food is well known but the extent to which this process is responsible for destroying precious natural capital, such as a tropical forest, who is responsible, and who finances it, is far less well understood.

Recently in Bonn, hard pressed climate negotiators once again met to eye each other up and arm-wrestle national positions before the next UN Climate Conference three months from now.

One of the hot topics in Bonn, was how to tackle what drives deforestation, the smoke from which accounts for about the same emissions as all the cars, ships and planes on the planet.

At US$92.2 billion, the global value of the beef, soy and palm oil supply chains that drive the burning and clearing of tropical forests for land, far outstrips the US$6 billion that Governments have put up to halt the process, so finding a solution will be no picnic.

Amazon picnic

But to what extent are we involved, you and me? To what extent do we drive deforestation – by what we eat?

In an English woodland festooned with bluebells, I invited an unsuspecting commodities trader to join me for a “rainforest picnic” – to explore some surprises that lie behind the buying and selling of food in the global market place.

Earlier, I had popped into a local supermarket to purchase a range of picnic items.

There was some cured ham from Holland, a rare beef sandwich, another filled with bacon, tomato and rocket, a Scotch Egg, some fruit juices, packets of crisps, a selection of chocolate biscuits, soya milk, a bottle of Chablis and coffee in a flask.

After a brisk walk, my trader buddy joined me on the rug and I set out our feast.

As she reached for the cured ham, I raised a note of caution: “You can only consume items that you can be sure are ‘deforestation free’ and have no risky commodities in them, like beef, soya, and palm oil that might have come from a rainforest.”

Perplexed, she started to inspect the lables on the packaging. “What do you mean?” she said, “Nothing about rainforests here.”

Invisible food

Greenpeace campaigns have ensured that some people might feel Brazilian cattle ranchers are slaughtering the Amazon or palm oil barons are doing the same to orangutans but what reality lies behind the rhetoric?

In fact large amounts of “forest risk commodities”, those that can contribute to deforestation, slip into our food chains as stealthily as meat from a horse.

The most invisible of these is soya, mainly from Latin America and in particular Amazonia.

Imported through the Hague, for years it has been feeding Europe’s chickens, pigs and cows and hence finding its way into our picnics. Now the demand from China and India, far outstrips that from the EU.

By burning trees to clear land for cows, consumer demand for beef and also leather products produced in the Amazon, made Brazil one of the world’s largest emitters of CO2.

Recently, Brazil has reduced its deforestation rate dramatically, but now it’s on the rise this year and in neighboring countries, surveillance is weaker.

Most Brazilian beef is consumed within Brazil, but increasingly it’s exported in vast quantities to China, Russia and Egypt. Once re-packaged, it is hard to track. Some comes directly into Europe.

Palm oil

“That means no Scotch Egg or B-L-T sandwich and the cured ham and beef’s out too”, I said. Looking distinctly irritated, my trader friend seized the chocolate biscuits and crisps and peered at the labels.

“Ha! Vegetable oil, not palm oil so they’re fine!” The problem here is the invisibility of palm oil.

Tonnes of it arrives each year in tankers from SE Asia where its profitability has enriched nations, investors, and poor farmers alike, but has also incentivized the destruction of thousands of square miles of rainforest each year, home to millions of species including our close cousin, the orangutan.

Grown on palm trees, the fruit is crushed to make oil that the food industry uses to replace harmful transfats. Once fractionated in refineries, palm oil derivatives find their way into everything from cookies, cosmetics, cooking oil, crisps and shampoo.

Hence NGO campaigns highlight the uncomfortable truth that having a break with a chocolate bar, may connect consumers to bloodied and orphaned orangutans, whose mothers have been shot to make way for palm oil plantations.

Mixed messages

But the campaigns are too simplistic. Not all palm oil is “bad”.  Much is grown legitimately on legal plantations or on land that was deforested many years ago. It is the expansion of new plantations into forests of high conservation value that needs to be halted and now.

As NGO pressure increases and the regulatory noose tightens around commodities grown on illegally deforested land, unscrupulous producers are leaking out of Brazil and Asia to seek easy pickings in Africa.

So where can they be grown, safely? The answer seems to be on degraded land.

Globally, there are millions of hectares of largely idle land, exhausted of nutrients and left over from earlier agricultural expansion but now needing restoration.

This is a massive opportunity for businesses willing to meet higher standards with equitable safeguards for the local community owners of the land.

Absorbing costs

This change comes at a price and, like a slippery rugby ball, the costs of transitioning producers to sustainability are passed from government, to business, to consumers, with no one willing to pay the premium.

Someone must be prepared to pick this up, or the result will be business as usual with rainforests continuing in fiery retreat.

Campaigns can educate all of us; supermarkets reducing their forest footprint will help too but more than this, Governments need to re-set the rules of the game.

Illegally produced commodities should be outlawed; Governments should use public procurement  to create demand for sustainable food; the money spun by traders and investors in the global food casino should be incentivized to account for natural capital it impacts.

The global “spot market” matches supply with demand and prices our food on a trader’s bet.

But it also sets rainforests alight. Where ‘forest risk commodities’ are concerned, the stakes they are betting are much higher than they perceive, because the natural capital that we also depend on for our economic security, is being left in ashes, like a deadly hangover after a night of easy wins.

So what could we consume in our rainforest picnic and still keep our conscience clear? “Surely, not the soya milk?” my trader friend said with hungry desperation.

“Well, that and the fruit juice” I said. Only the soya packaging identified its contents as having been produced in Madagascar, exclusively on farms that did not destroy rainforests.

“I’ll drink to that”, she said as I popped the cork on the Chablis.

Andrew Mitchell is director of the Global Canopy Programme. He acts as an adviser to governments and international institutions, and is special advisor to the Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project.

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