Taking trees off the menu: How our food behaviour in Wales is driving tropical deforestation and what we can do about it

By Angie Kirby

Tropical forests are complex ecosystems rich in biodiversity – the work of millions of years of evolution captured in the DNA of every plant and animal. Each one is a tiny thread in the tapestry of life: each interconnected, each reliant on and contributing to a healthy, functioning ecosystem. In their ability to sequester vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, tropical forests are an essential tool in the fight against climate change, helping to regulate our climate and maintain a healthy planet – our life-support system.

In addition to sucking up carbon and storing it deep in the soil, tropical forests provide a huge range of ecosystem services, from regulating services, such as water purification and flood prevention, to provisional services, such as shelter, food and medicinenot to mention cultural benefits, such as spiritual enrichment and inspiration.

However, currently, global rates of deforestation cause more CO2 emissions than all the world’s transport combined, seriously undermining our ability to tackle climate change. At the New York Declaration of Forests in 2014, governments and organisations around the world committed to removing deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. However, since 2014, deforestation rates have increased by 44%. According to the World Resources Institute, around 18 million hectares of forest are lost every year – roughly nine times the size of Wales. Not only is this diminishing the health and viability of forest ecosystems, but it is having a devastating effect on indigenous communities, who frequently suffer severe human rights violations at the hands of corporations, criminal gangs and local law enforcement

Alongside these impacts, the destruction of tropical forests also brings an increased risk of pandemics. Seventy-five per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic – spread from animals to humans – with increasing rates of tropical deforestation providing the perfect opportunity for zoonotic diseases to leap into human populations. It is clear we cannot continue down this path and expect our world to be a safe and habitable one, but what is driving this increase and what can we do about it here in Wales?

Firstly, it is helpful to know that 73%of all tropical deforestation is caused by a handful of key agricultural products – products we buy, use and consume in Wales every day, including beef, soy, palm oil, coffee and cacao. Many of us will be aware of the impacts of unsustainably produced palm oil, thanks to campaigns such as Iceland’s Rang-tan the Orangutan, but how many of us would relate a dash of milk in our morning brew to tropical deforestation? I think you would agree the answer is not many. However, emissions from imported deforestation are deeply rooted in the Welsh economy. For example, 80-90% of soy grown in tropical regions and imported into the UK goes into animal feed, including farmed fish, pork, beef and dairy cattle and poultry, particularly here in Wales where there are a growing number of intensive poultry operations. Therefore, by consuming meat and dairy from animals reared on soy, we are inadvertently contributing to the problem of deforestation.  

On average, the UK consumes around 3.3 million tonnes of soy per year, requiring nearly two million hectares of land. Of this it is estimated that at least 77% comes from countries and regions with a high risk of deforestation, including the Brazilian Cerrado, which has lost over 50% of its mass due to land conversion. The Cerrado is a rich, biodiverse savannah, vital in the fight against climate change and home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

In Brazil, the global demand for beef is the single biggest driver of deforestation and land conversion, accounting for around 65-70% of all deforestation in the Amazon region between 2000 and 2005. During a five year period, the UK imported around £1 billion worth of beef linked to deforestation in the Amazon – enough to make 170 million burgers a year. Brazilian beef imports include tinned corned beef and highly processed beef, which is linked to fast food consumption and rising obesity levels in Wales.

Forest footprints also vary within commodities. For example, Welsh cattle is mainly grass-fed and supplemented with soy to help them build protein before slaughter. So, Welsh beef has a significantly lower forest footprint than imported beef, such as beef from Brazil. Building on this, certified organic or 100% grass-fed beef goes even further in taking trees off the menu. These variations can make a huge difference to tropical forests.

So, by joining the dots from farm to fork, we can see that our consumer behaviour – for example, which products we buy and how they are produced – can have a direct impact on communities, tropical forests, biodiversity, climate and health.

The need for collective action

In order to tackle these complex and compounded issues, Wales must transition to a sustainable food system that respects environmental limits and human rights. To do this, it is essential that public bodies, businesses and civil society work together to remove imported deforestation from the Welsh economy.

As civil society, whether individuals, groups or businesses, there are practical steps we can take to reduce our forest footprints. These include:

  • Eating more plant-based foods, including high protein pulses, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas and alternative proteins, such as organic tofu and tempeh.
  • Eating less, but better quality and locally sourced meat and dairy, such as 100% grass-fed animal products. Look for the Pasture for Life label, which is widely available in Wales.
  • Buying products with an ethical certification, such as Fairtrade, which includes a no-deforestation criterion, and Soil Association Organic, which guarantees nature friendly farming methods.
  • Avoiding processed foods, such as fast food and ready meals, to reduce your consumption of unsustainably sourced palm oil and beef and soy from deforestation risk regions.
  • Only buying products that contain sustainably sourced palm oil. Palm oil and its derivatives are found in over 50% of packaged products, ranging from foodstuffs to household and body products. Furthermore, with over 200 names it is incredibly difficult spot in the ingredients list. While many organisations have called to boycott palm oil, switching to other oil crops would require more land to produce the same amount of oil, resulting in wider deforestation and environmental degradation. So, when out shopping, look for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo, which now includes a no further deforestation criterion or burning of land to clear it. Chester Zoo has compiled this handy shopping list of common brands that source 100% of their palm oil through RSPO certified physical supply chains.

While we can take practical steps to reduce our impact on tropical forests, it is still incredibly difficult for the consumer to know the true forest footprint of a product or ingredient. This is due to the complexity of current systems, ranging from traceability and labelling to local laws and standards, including country definitions of what is deemed ‘sustainable’ practice. Furthermore, regardless of the desire or motivation to live more sustainably, many people cannot afford to make these choices. That is why clear, legislative commitments are so important. By taking a firm position on imported deforestation, we can create more demand and fairer access to sustainably sourced goods that work for both people and planet.

As part of the transition, Welsh Government should lead the way by introducing a deforestation free public procurement policy and creating a public register of deforestation free businesses. Many countries and states have either implemented or are currently developing policies to remove imported deforestation from public procurement, among them France, Norway, California and most recently, the United States.

We must also introduce sustainable farming practices that do not contribute to deforestation overseas. This includes ending the reliance on imported soy animal feed that originates from forest risk areas and adopting nature and climate-friendly farming methods, such as, organic farming, agroecology and agroforestry. We need a new cross-departmental food system strategy that incentivises local and sustainable supply chains and prioritises sustainably sourced goods from overseas to support livelihoods both at home and abroad. Furthermore, as we enter new trading relationships around the world, it is crucial that policymakers in Wales and the UK ensure that any future trade policies will guarantee environmental and human rights standards. We cannot do this alone, however. Politicians in Wales must urge the UK Government to implement mandatory due diligence legislation that applies to all companies importing deforestation risk goods, including those deemed legal by weaker local laws and standards.

If we are to reach our target of net-zero by 2050 and preserve our planet for future generations, we must eliminate imported deforestation from the Welsh economy and work with international partners to end global deforestation. With 87% of people wanting action on deforestation, the public appetite for change already exists. Wales might be a small country, but we are a global leader in sustainability. In 2008, we became the world’s first Fairtrade Nation, in 2015, the first country to legislate for sustainable development through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act and in 2019, the first parliament to declare a Climate Emergency. So, let us pursue our goals of becoming a healthier, resilient, prosperous and globally responsible Wales and commit to become the world’s first Deforestation Free Nation.

The Deforestation Free Nation campaign is a coalition between Welsh charities Size of Wales, WWF Cymru and RSPB Cymru. The campaign invites individuals, communities, businesses and the Welsh public sector to pledge their commitment in eliminating tropical deforestation from the Welsh economy. For anyone interested in establishing a Deforestation Free Community in their area, please contact Size of Wales for more information.

Angie Kirby is the Advocacy Outreach Officer for the Deforestation Free Nation campaign. She has experience working in the voluntary and public sector in Wales – most recently with the Health and Sustainability Hub in Public Health Wales NHS Trust, where she worked on policy and sustainable behaviour change, including climate change education, active travel, green recovery and biodiversity. She is also a creative practitioner, singer, artist and poet.

Photo credit: Felipe Werneck

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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