Stern words, expressions of dismay, twitter spats, threats and incentives won’t put out the Amazon’s fires
Instead, the UK must ban imports of soy for animal feed.
Yesterday saw concerned citizens across six continents react to the horror of the Amazonian forest fires with a slew of protests calling out a group of 12 global corporations whose business models are responsible for ongoing destruction in the Amazon.
In more muted tones, politicians in Europe have criticised the lax policies of Brazil’s ultra-conservative President Bolsonaro, which have fanned the flames of forest clearance. But are policy-makers in the UK and Europe shouldering our share of responsibility for the role the trade in global agricultural commodities, such as soy, plays in planet-heating deforestation?
The UK imports around 3.3 million tonnes of soy, over 75% of which for livestock rearing. Three quarters of UK soy imports come from countries undergoing rapid and catastrophic deforestation, like Brazil – some of it from Brazil’s Cerrado region. TRASE data shows that Cargill alone imported half a million tonnes of Brazilian soy in 2017. In a sickening spiral, the massive increase in soy grown in the Cerrado has fed the boom in Brazilian cattle ranching, clearing more rainforest to make way for intensive beef farms. Here too we need to face facts: the UK was the 9th largest importer of Brazilian beef in 2017 (though imports have declined since then), with Brazilian beef supplying UK supermarket’s corned beef ranges across the country.
Around Europe, governments are starting to wake up. France has adopted a National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation, including a goal to end deforestation caused by importing ‘unsustainable forest and agricultural products’ by 2030.
And last week Finland’s Agriculture Minister Jari Leppa called for Finland to stop importing soy within the next five years, for both animal and direct human consumption, citing the potential of domestic feed production of oats, peas and fava beans to replace it. He’s even suggested banning EU imports of Brazilian beef in response to lack of action from the Brazilian government on deforestation.
Momentum is gathering and it’s time the UK steps forwards too. With an official government target to hit net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (which some say is already too far off), it is crucial that we look not only to greener domestic practices, but also to how the UK exports our climate footprint.
While there’s a host of climate-damaging candidates for an import ban, here’s why soy should be front of the queue.
First, there is no such thing as ‘sustainable soy’. Some industries may have signed up to various commitments or ‘sustainable soy roundtables’ but the fact remains that all demand for soy increases the pressure on land overall, thus helping to drive deforestation elsewhere, if not in that particular field. Even companies who have previously given commitments to zero deforestation aren’t clean: TRASE data shows that during the last decade soya traders in the Brazilian market with zero-deforestation commitments – Cargill, Bunge, ADM and Amaggi – have been associated with similar deforestation risk as companies that have not made such commitments. In addition, in May 2018, five traders and multiple soy farmers were fined US$29 million by the Brazilian government for soy bean cultivation and purchasing connected with illegal deforestation. You guessed it – two of them had zero deforestation commitments.
Second, banning soy imports wouldn’t just tackle a slice of our exported deforestation footprint. It would also pose a challenge to the growth of intensive and industrialised meat sector in the UK. In 2017 the Sustainable Food Trust calculated that almost 90% of the 1.1 million tonnes of imported soy meal is fed to pigs, poultry and farmed fish. The Scottish salmon industry, which markets itself as producing a sustainable alternative protein, uses 50,000 tonnes of soy a year to feed its fish, alongside 475,000 tonnes of wild fish.
There are well over 800 mega-farms in the UK, the vast majority producing chicken and pigs, and their numbers are rising. These are industrial units financed by companies like Cargill, who supply Tesco’s chicken. Cargill, named the ‘worst company in the world’ by US campaign group Mighty Earth (for its lengthy rap sheet of environmental, human rights and financial abuses), is itself financed by Big Finance investors like Barclays, who supported the industrial agriculture giant to the tune of 1.172 billion dollars between 2013-2018 (AmazonWatch).
Third, cutting off the UK’s imported soy dependence could help stimulate more sustainable forms of domestic production. While eating less meat across the board is vital to preserve our planet – Feedback are calling for a 50% reduction in meat consumption by 2030 – animal farming plays a role in a sustainable, resilient and regenerative food system. A ban on soy would create the policy space to support farmers to transition to agro-ecological and silvio-pasture practices which pioneering studies have demonstrated are essential for food and farming that both support climate change targets and the restoration and health of the natural world
Soy isn’t just used in animal feed – soy oil is also an ingredient in highly-processed human foods such as confectionary, soy meal is used in pet food, pharmaceuticals and industrial products (Sustainable Food Trust), and whole soy beans are used to make products like tofu and soy milk. A small amount of fully-traceable soy could continue to satisfy these demands. At the same time, could the UK ape Finland’s target to increase domestic protein crops, such as fava beans and peas as a replacement for soy?
The Amazonian forest fires are a flashpoint for action in a world tilting into climate chaos. To make the most of this moment of clarity, we need to see concrete policy change that recognises the UK’s global role in planet-destroying practices. It’s not an overstatement to say that each shipment of soy, certified or otherwise, that arrives in the UK for the livestock industry is a direct driver of deforestation. To end the UK’s contribution to the collapse of the natural world, the UK government must commit and act, now, to end the imports of soy for animal feed.
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