French deforestation database pressures Brazilian soy traders to clean up supply chain

  • France has published a new risk analysis platform that allows companies to more easily determine which soy traders are contributing to illegal deforestation in Brazil.
  • Brazilian soy is the single largest French import of deforestation, contributing to the massive reduction of the cerrado grasslands.
  • Access to thorough, organized data may force soy traders to change their practices and agree to a sweeping moratorium on the use of cerrado land deforested after 2020.

France is taking new steps to ensure that products imported from Brazil aren’t contributing to deforestation in vulnerable forests and savannahs.

The French government published a new risk analysis platform earlier this month that shows how much activity by soy traders is causing tree cover loss. The tool is intended to implement more rigorous oversight of the country’s supply chain by helping French companies determine which soy traders they should work with.

“Deforestation is happening in Brazil to feed our markets, our European markets,” said Klervi Le Guenic, a campaign manager at Canopée, one of the organizations that helped assemble the data. “As French consumers, we are responsible for what is happening in the soy industry in Brazil.”

Brazilian soy is the single largest driver of deforestation connected to French economic activity. Most of the soy comes from the Brazilian cerrado, a massive 438,910 square-kilometer (169,464 square-mile) network of savannah and wooded grasslands that accounts for around 20% of the country’s total land.

The area contains over 300 species of mammals, 14,000 species of insects and 935 species of birds. Over 4,000 plant species endemic to Brazil are also found there.

Mongabay has reported on the increasing destruction of this ecosystem, including the possibility that the entire biome is in danger of collapse in the next 30 years, according to one study published this year. According to 2020 deforestation data, the area has already shrunk 78% from its original size.

The food company Bunge, one of France’s largest soy traders, was tied to over 60,000 hectares (148,263 acres) of deforestation between March 2019 and 2021, according to the conservation group Mighty Earth. Cargill is another top offender.

“Cargill is committed to eliminating deforestation in the shortest time possible. There is no single solution to address the challenge,” a spokesman said. “That’s why our approach includes initiatives that protect the land, invest in regenerative land practices, restore previously converted land and continue to innovate with programs and solutions that can drive long-term change.”

Bunge didn’t responded to a request for comment.

Soy fields encroach on Brazilian forests. Image via Rhett Butler

The deforestation data used by the French has existed for several years, but this is the first time that the government has published it in on a federal website in a thorough, organized format. Experts say this makes it impossible for companies to claim ignorance about what’s happening in Brazil.

“It’s one thing to say they don’t have the information,” Le Guenic said. “But now it’s on the government platform. They can’t say they don’t know.”

The launch of the platform — known officially as the “deforestation risk assessment dashboard” — comes at a time when numerous European governments are taking steps to better monitor their supply chains against deforestation. Last month, the EU Commission announced a proposal that would effectively ban all products linked to legal and illegal deforestation. Similarly, the UK last year laid out a series of laws intended to improve traceability measures for high-risk agricultural imports.

France wants to curb deforestation

The creation of France’s risk analysis platform is part of the country’s 2018 National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation (SNDI), which aims to end the importation of unsustainable forestry and agricultural products contributing to tree cover loss by 2030.

Last year, eight supermarkets in France, including Carrefour and Casino, made a pledge to fight deforestation connected to soy imports. However, even with the creation of the risk analysis platform, conservation groups say that more has to be done.

“Is this the final solution?” asks Nico Muzi, Europe Director for Mighty Earth. “I say no. But [the French platform] puts us in the right direction and it’s a very important step toward having clean suppliers. We need to start shifting away from high-risk traders.”

Muzi said a long-term solution to combatting deforestation will require establishing a moratorium on deforestation-linked soy in the cerrado.

In 2006, a soy moratorium saw traders voluntarily stop growing soybeans in parts of the Amazon that were deforested after 2008, resulting in an approximately 80% drop in tree cover loss in the first ten years. Conservationists believe that the moratorium — originally renewed yearly but now in-place indefinitely — could be replicated in the cerrado.

Over 160 big consumer good companies and retailers worldwide have signed onto a 2017 Cerrado Manifesto that urges soy traders to commit to a moratorium on the use of cerrado land deforested after 2020. At the end of 2019, the French government and civil society were in talks with soy traders about implementing the regulation, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement that was both financially viable and beneficial to the environment.

Muzi said that France’s deforestation database will put additional pressure on the traders to reconsider the Cerrado Manifesto guidelines, and possibly agree to a moratorium.

“They were about to sign it and then the traders walked away from the negotiating table,” he said. “But now, it’s a real possibility. That’s the whole idea: that the traders start to feel the pressure in Brazil.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a comment from Cargill.

Banner Image: Deforestation caused by a soy plantation in the Brazilian cerrado. Image via Rhett Butler.

Study: Heilmayr, R., Rausch, L.L., Munger, J. et al. Brazil’s Amazon Soy Moratorium reduced deforestation. Nat Food 1, 801–810 (2020).

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