As far as sector-wide commitments to tackling deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon go, the soy moratorium
, signed by a host of commodities companies over ten years ago, has been a success.
As the first voluntary zero-deforestation agreement to be implemented in the tropics, it helped set the scene for other supply chain governance programmes. Farms violating the moratorium were identified using satellite monitoring and blocked from selling to the signatories.
And it has worked. In the two years before the moratorium was established, almost 30% of soy production expansion happened via deforestation rather than through the replacement of pasture or other previously cleared lands. Once the moratorium took hold, deforestation for soy fell away to on only 1% of expansion in the Amazon biome by 2014.
So why then is Cargill, one of the world’s biggest commodity traders and buyers, now under attack and accused of sourcing soy from deforested lands?
A recent investigation
by environmental group Mighty Earth said that a number of UK-based fast food outlets and supermarkets, including Tesco, Morrison and McDonald’s, have been buying chicken from Cargill, which had been fed with imported soy that is coming from tropical regions that continue to be deforested in the name of soy expansion.
The Mighty Earth accusation is that, in a bid to circumvent the rules established by the soy moratorium, Cargill and others have simply switched their soy sourcing to nearby regions not protected by the agreement, such as the Bolivian Amazon and Brazilian Cerrado.
Reporting for Mongabay, the UK-based journalist Anna Sophie Gross, says that “efforts to extend the soy moratorium to the Bolivian Amazon and Brazilian Cerrado have long been opposed by Cargill, despite calls to do so by NGOs, scientists and the Brazilian environment minister”.
Cargill says it welcomes the Mighty Earth report stating “working in partnership with civil society groups – as well as our competitors, farmers, government and others – on approaches to conserve native vegetation while encouraging sustainable agriculture in the region” is crucial.
McDonald’s responded saying that the protection of forests and high conservation value areas is an “important business issue”. “[We] are committed to eliminating deforestation from our global supply chains as set out in our Commitment on Forests
and we continue to engage with a variety of stakeholders, our suppliers and other partners to achieve this commitment.”
The fall-out of the investigation raises many interesting questions on both sides of the argument. How can difficult, complex and crucial challenges such as tropical deforestation be properly addressed if farmers and agricultural companies find suitable “work-arounds” to commitments made in perceived good faith?
Similarly, to satisfy ever-growing demand for soy, further expansion of soy production will be needed – but how can that be done without destroying yet more forests?
Cargill, which has also just updated its “cocoa promise
”, has robustly defended its position arguing that it is working hard to find a solution that meets consumer needs while protecting the environment.
In Brazil, Cargill is part of the Soybean Working Group (GTS), which formed a separate Cerrado working group to focus on the specific challenges facing the region. “The GTS is the best local platform to discuss the issue, since it has representatives from a variety of sectors, including NGOs, government, consumers and public banks,” says Cargill’s director of sustainability communications, Chris Schraeder.
Similarly, in Bolivia, Schraeder says Cargill is engaging third-party partners to help map and assess its supply chain in the country, investing in internal systems to allow for more control on farm level information. “This process is already on going and we expect to have more information as soon as the assessment phase is finished.”
The NGO community is pressing for the soy moratorium to be extended to cover more land across the tropics, with local and regional governments playing a greater role in making sure farmers are aware and able to commit to the requirements set out. The exclusion of all deforestation on soy-producing properties, including small clearings and those located in indigenous lands and rural settlements, where soy production is expanding, will have a big impact.
The tricky balance
However, challenges remain in finding the right balance between environmental protection, the economic livelihood of farmers, protecting indigenous rights, sustainable development and global food security.
“Proposals to extend the Amazon soy moratorium to other regions, and the Cerrado in particular, are not pragmatic and would fail to achieve this balance,” says Schraeder. “They also risk driving further agricultural expansion – and deforestation – into new areas.” He argues that workable solutions require the buy-in of all local stakeholders as part of an effective land use planning process.
Getting the balance between the critical concerns for international supply chains will, as ever, require a genuine and thoughtful multi-stakeholder approach. But this recent focus on soy demonstrates that, however well they might be doing in some areas, companies do have to always be working hard across all their supply chains to properly meet their commitments.
What that means is that companies and their partners need to take the time, effort and resources to develop tailored approaches to these complex sourcing challenges and make them work in specific landscapes. What works in one location won’t necessarily work elsewhere, but the lessons learned can be used to help frame an approach that does.
Join Cargill, Mighty Earth and many others at Innovation Forum's business and deforestation conference in London, 14-15 November. Full details here