Today, the global food system supports the livelihoods of 600 million farmers and employs almost one-third of the global workforce. However, the agriculture industry is one of the largest contributors to global greenhouse gases worldwide. This includes both animal and plant-based agriculture, as both contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, clearcutting and deforestation inhibit the sequestration of carbon and other greenhouse gases that induce global warming and climate change. They are also responsible for the loss of biodiversity and increased sociopolitical violence related to land disputes.
How industries indirectly drive deforestation
While it is clear how several subcategories within the agricultural realm have direct impacts on deforestation through the clearcutting of land to plant crops or rear livestock, many also have indirect means of driving deforestation. This is often through their supply chains.
One of the prime examples of this is the meat and soy industries. Over 75% of the soy produced globally is used for livestock feed. Though international meat companies often label their products as local, the livestock is likely to have been fed soy from South America.
To meet global industry demands, soy production has multiplied severalfold. Between 1961 to 2014, the area used for soy production grew by over 55 million hectares in South America. This includes areas that were once part of the Gran Chaco region and the Amazon rainforest. In fact, soy production in Brazil is expected to grow by 12.4 million hectares by 2025. Most of this is likely to be in the Cerrado, the central highlands of Brazil. The region is currently being utilized for agricultural expansion. This huge area also happens to be the world’s most biodiverse savanna ecosystem. Harm done to it will impact freshwater availability for Brazilians and threaten local flora and fauna.
Unfortunately, the lack of traceability between soy and livestock supply chains is very high. This is also the case within other agriculture-related industries, such as those of palm oil and cacao. The multiple layers of suppliers and middlemen between (small) local farms and large conglomerates complicate commodity tracing. This can lead to large companies unintentionally fueling deforestation through their work with smaller-scale groups that destroy local ecosystems.
A history of empty pledges
At COP27 this year, 14 large agricultural commodity companies, including Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, JBS Foods and Cargill, indicated their plans to stop deforestation related to the production of palm oil, cacao, soy and beef by 2025. Their roadmap to reduce emissions from land use change was highly criticized by environmentalists across the globe. These groups pointed out that the goals were unambitious and, most importantly, allowed companies to continue practices that led to deforestation without consequences until the cut-off date.
The reactions to these commitments are becoming increasingly negative. This is due to stalled efforts and empty pledges by companies to lessen their environmental impact over the past few decades. For example, in 2010, a group of over 400 companies pledged to help end deforestation by 2020. These promises included conglomerates like Carrefour and Nestle, who took their pledges further by aiming to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains entirely. While some companies were able to make some advances towards this goal, no single company was able to entirely eliminate deforestation from their supply chain.
Similarly, in 2014, over 50 companies of large-scale agricultural commodity companies and several governments joined the New York Declaration on Forests. This was a non-binding commitment to end deforestation as a result of agriculture commodity production by 2020. Through the declaration, they also pledged to restore 350 million hectares of deforested land by the year 2030. On one side, global deforestation rates have decreased slightly since the 1990s. However, this is not enough to absolve increased threats to biodiversity and the inhibiting of atmospheric carbon sequestration.
Why pledges are not followed through and achieved
One of the key reasons why deforestation commitments are not achieved is because there is a lack of commitment and synergy amongst small and large-scale companies to prevent deforestation. Particularly if smaller companies in a large conglomerate’s supply chain practice illegal land occupation, this can have repercussions on the pledges of the larger businesses as they can only partially meet their goals.
For goals to be met, there needs to be widespread implementation of zero-deforestation efforts. This way, there is cross-collaboration amongst members of the same industry that unite to achieve a single goal.
What can be done to prevent agriculture-induced deforestation
If companies are truly committed to preventing deforestation, especially through the indirect consequences of their supply chain, they need to invest in the understanding of their systems. While some companies have already begun to map out exactly what their supply chains look like, many large conglomerates as well as smaller-scale businesses must follow suit.
The advancement of technology allows for enhanced monitoring systems. This way, large-scale companies that typically have the most complex and indirect relationships with deforestation have fewer excuses.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) can also assist companies by putting together traceability systems and guidelines for companies. With NGOs providing companies with the tools and knowledge they need, large conglomerates are empowered to act on their deforestation pledges to prevent further environmental harm.
Finally, governments can put into place legally-binding regulations to force companies to trace their supply chains. In doing so, they would understand the origin points of their commodities and therefore filter out those whose values and goals do not align. By taking extra initiatives to combat direct and indirect agriculture-induced deforestation, we can prevent several environmental risks. These include biodiversity loss and lowered greenhouse gas absorption.
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