About 3.75 million hectares of primary tropical forests have been cleared annually in recent years, contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss, and threatening the livelihoods of indigenous communities. Many of these trees were felled to make way for just a handful of agricultural commodities: cattle, oil palm, soy, cocoa, coffee and plantation rubber. A lot of these commodities are exported to satisfy the growing demand for meat and vegetable oils, ending up in everything from hamburgers to chocolate cake.
In an attempt to slow these losses, since the early 2000s, many governments, along with hundreds of agribusiness and big-brand food companies (including McDonald’s, Unilever and Mars, for example), and coalitions of public and private organizations, have publicly committed to remove deforestation from their commodity supply chains. In a few regions and for a few specific commodities, these commitments have helped to save some forests, also spurring progress in monitoring and awareness of deforestation. But, as a whole, these “zero-deforestation commitments” aren’t nearly as effective as they sound. As currently implemented, they just can’t reduce deforestation significantly.
For example, despite the soy moratorium signed in 2006 by the major transnational soy traders in Brazil, along with two similar agreements on deforestation caused by cattle, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon continues apace. In fact, deforestation significantly increased after Brazil’s former government, under then-President Jair Bolsonaro, reduced resources to enforce land-use regulations.
How are these commodity pledges meant to work? First, you need the major agribusiness companies to commit to using only deforestation-free ingredients — and they will do so either because the countries where they sell their products (such as those in the European Union) have rules and regulations that require it, or because of strong consumer demand. Then you need the supply chains to be clear and traceable, so that the companies can tell if their products — such as leather, cocoa or soybeans — are truly deforestation-free.
These conditions don’t always hold. In tropical domestic markets, there is often little demand for deforestation-free products. Most of Latin America’s beef production — the main direct cause of deforestation in the region — is for local consumption, where reducing tree loss isn’t a top priority for many governments and consumers. Likewise, Indonesia increasingly uses its palm oil production in its local biodiesel and oleochemical industry. More than two-thirds of commodity-driven deforestation is for products destined for such domestic markets.
In addition, the bulk of exports goes to countries that don’t prioritize deforestation concerns. The countries that do focus on such sustainability issues are mostly in Europe and North America, which make up less than 10 percent of international markets for forest-risk commodities. In the other export markets, mostly in Asia, demand for deforestation-free production is still limited. In 2020, India and China each accounted for about 15 percent of global imports of palm oil, and that oil has a deforestation risk 2.4 times greater per ton compared with palm oil imported by the EU. China eats up 30 percent of Brazil’s beef exports — compared with a few percent for the European Union and even less for the United States. Only recently have some Asian agribusiness companies adopted sustainable sourcing policies — in writing, anyway.
Even the companies exporting to the EU and the US do not always know whether their supplying farmers are causing deforestation or not. The vast majority of cocoa farmers sell to small, opportunistic middlemen who then sell to chocolate companies. It is very difficult to keep track of these deals, so no one can fully trace whether the end product is truly deforestation-free. As a result, deforestation can slip through the cracks.
On top of all this, while agricultural purposes drive more than 90 percent of tropical deforestation, only about half of that deforested land is actively managed for crops. The rest is cleared but abandoned after a few years, or never cultivated in the first place, victim to land speculation, land-use conflicts or uncontrolled fires. This deforestation isn’t accounted for in commodity supply chains.
We reviewed a large number of recent studies and concluded that zero-deforestation commitments as they are currently implemented can reduce the risk of tropical deforestation only by a few percent. Even if all exported forest-risk commodities were covered by such commitments, with a very good implementation, this would still be capable of reducing deforestation risk by only about 11 percent.
The trick is to tackle the domestic markets. For most commodities, the major exporting firms from the tropics are also active locally. The good news is that if those companies used the same deforestation-free supply lines for their domestic products as they do for, say, their exports to the EU, the potential impact could increase to cover about a third of all deforestation risk. That would be significant.
How do we make that happen? Market forces could partially do the trick, if and when markets in, say, Asia start to care more about deforestation-free products. Unfortunately, that is happening only very slowly. The other way is through a combination of measures: civil society pressure on traders to apply their zero-deforestation commitments to all their suppliers; stronger enforcement of land-use policies in tropical forest countries; and international financial mechanisms delivering more resources to countries that succeed in reversing their deforestation. Whatever the measures, it’s important that zero-deforestation commitments don’t exclude small producers that might use sound farming practices but don’t have the resources to prove their products are deforestation-free.
Truly achieving zero deforestation will require a transformation of how commodities are produced, traded and consumed. Supply-chain initiatives are just one piece of the big picture. Government support and coordination are also imperative.
The most recent relevant international pledge is the 2021 Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference by more than 140 countries, which jointly cover 90.9 percent of the world’s forests. They committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while promoting a rural transformation that’s fair for all. Time is running out for these pledges to finally make a big difference globally, as forests are still going down in flames, fast.