Soy and deforestation: the easiest step to take is also the most impactful

If we reflect on the prominent environmental issues of 2016, those that received widespread media coverage: the Paris Agreement, renewable energy, palm oil, fracking and air pollution, amongst others, would undoubtedly spring to mind. Few headlines seemed to touch on the deforestation sweeping across South America to give way to an expanding soy industry and its relationship to meat and dairy.

Soy and deforestation: the easiest step to take is also the most impactful

Described by WWF as the world’s fastest growing crop, ensuring soy is produced sustainably is one of the greatest environmental challenges we face heading into 2017.

Soy is one of the leading causes of deforestation around the world, sitting alongside palm oil, timber and cattle farming. Despite this, consumer awareness appears to be relatively absent. Perhaps equally surprising is the absence of company strategies by way of policy and/or commitment in this area, companies which have already been affected by deforestation found in their supply chains for other commodities. The Global Canopy Programme’s ‘Forest 500’ project found that, in 2015, just 27% of the most influential companies operating in these markets had sustainability policies in place for soy, compared to over 60% for palm oil and timber.

Why the demand?

Soy is a cheap and highly versatile vegetable oil that produces more protein per hectare than other plant sources. Demand comes primarily from industrial agriculture in the form of animal feed and over 75% of global production is used to rear livestock. Its high functionality makes soy suitable for a range of commercial and industrial applications, such as biodiesel and as an additive found in almost all processed foods, from chocolate and meat to cheese and cereals. As such, global export values for soy surpass those of all other major forest commodities.

The impacts of land clearance are severe. Since the rise of soy in the 1960s, WWF estimate that four million hectares of land is cleared each year for its cultivation across Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay. Soy now sits within the top three exports for each of these countries and collectively represents nearly 50% of total global production.

Whilst soy has generated a livelihood for local farmers and fueled the growth of national economies, these regions are exceptionally rich in biodiversity and are increasingly threatened by new and expanding plantations. Indeed, South American rainforests are home to over 40% of the world’s plant and animal species as well as indigenous communities that depend on them for survival. The ecosystem services that these regions provide have been heavily degraded over time. Changes in land use and the industrial farming practices employed to grow extensive monocultures of soy have not only led to habitat loss and the associated decline in biodiversity, but the removal of these essential carbon sinks also contributes to climate change.

Certification: part of the problem or part of the solution?

These are not new issues and are prevalent in most forest commodity supply chains, yet soy has been allowed to continue its devastating reign unabated. Organisations such as WWF, Greenpeace and the Proterra Foundation have been fighting hard to end the growing deforestation caused by global agribusiness through promoting certification schemes. Whilst these initiatives have succeeded in similar industries such as palm oil and timber, they have struggled to gain a foothold with soy. In 2015, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and ProTerra had certified a total of just 5.9 million tonnes since the schemes’ inception, equating to a rather disappointing and alarming 2% of the global market. Of this, only 55% has been sold.

But success has been seen in South America with the foundation of Brazil’s industry-led Soy Moratorium. Formed a decade ago in response to a damaging report published by Greenpeace, the moratorium was renewed indefinitely in a momentous victory last year. It is now thought that less than an 1.25% of all soy originating from Brazil comes from rainforest that has been recently cleared – undeniably an outstanding achievement. The moratorium is an inspiring example of what can be achieved in the absence of environmental legislation, when powerful collaborations are formed between governments, industry, NGOs and in turn, consumers.

Yet, reports of increased deforestation in other regions throughout Brazil such as the Cerrado, and neighbouring countries including Paraguay and Bolivia indicate that the moratorium may have simply displaced the environmental problem elsewhere. Shifting the frontier of soy production across Brazil’s borders, where little to no policies exist protecting local farmers and ecosystems doesn’t appear synonymous with success but valuable lessons can be learned.

Moving forward: setting strong targets

Although targets set for sustainable soy production sit well below those implemented for palm oil and timber, analysis carried out by The Global Canopy Programme indicate that the industry has seen the fastest growth in terms of policy development. For companies that handle soy at some point in its journey from farm to plate, setting targets that are specific to the commodity rather than countries of origin is seen by many as essential if the displacement of deforestation is to be avoided. In this way, companies can future proof and actively manage their supply chain risks associated with the expansion of soy into new regions around the world (such as southern and central Africa). Embracing CSR strategies that go above and beyond what is required legislatively can also have far-reaching brand benefits and establish companies as market leaders.

Things need to change and it is only a matter of time before consumer and media attention turns to soy. Organisations must accept greater responsibility for the stewardship of natural resources on a global scale and the products they put on supermarket shelves.

Positive and impactful changes you can make

The good news is that you too can make a difference to the fate of forests, grasslands and savannahs across South America. We are all responsible for the food choices we make on a daily basis and are generally well-equipped to make educated and responsible decisions as consumers. A few simple adjustments to your routine could have direct impacts on future deforestation:

1) Cut down on meat consumption: a sore spot for many, this is truly one of the most impactful changes you can make to reduce the demand for soy

2) Buy certified products: become familiar with the logos for the soy certification schemes (RTRS and ProTerra) and look out for this stamp of assurance on non-meat products

3) Take an interest in company performance: at the end of the financial year, league tables are often published assessing industry performance against targets. Keep an eye open for WWF’s ‘Soy Scorecard’ and purchase products from those companies performing strongly to send a clear message to industry

4) Choose 2017 as the year of the ethical consumer: consider the full extent of our own accountability with sustainability issues, not just those relating to soy and deforestation but across the board

Eleanor Jeffrey is a consultant at Carbon Smart

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