How to stop imported deforestation

Even before the terrible fires in the Amazon pushed deforestation into the news, Europe was already evaluating how it could act to preserve the world’s primary forests. The importation of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa, maize, rubber, timber and other crops into the EU, accounts for up to 10% of the worldwide deforestation caused by agriculture. The European Union has recently published a strategy to combat such deforestation by encouraging the consumption of products from deforestation-free supply chains and using the leverage of the EU’s aid programme.  

The strategy has already been criticised for not going far enough. WWF has called for regulation to ensure that high-risk commodities marketed in the EU are sustainably produced and not linked to deforestation, ecosystem conversion, or violation of human rights. But producer countries would regard any such regulation as a barrier to trade, in violation of international trade rules. Retaliatory measures have already been proposed by SE Asian countries in response to the EU’s measures to limit imports of certain palm oil biofuels.

The European Commission aims to mobilise public opinion against high-risk products, by voluntary labelling.  Consumers can drive change and a customer exercising their right to choose does not contravene international trade rules. The European Commission’s proposal for product labelling however is rather narrow. It proposes to extend its own Ecolabel to cover these commodities. 

Labelling will also be entirely voluntary which will limit its impact. We really need a compulsory labelling system, which shows deforestation risk clearly, so consumers know what they are buying. A traffic light system is easy to understand. Green would be for products certified to an EU approved sustainability scheme and red would be for no proof at all of responsible sourcing.  Amber could cover the case where only a certain percentage of the raw materials are certified. 

The Ecolabel isn't established in the food sector; in fact, the Ecolabel website currently says that it has no plans to cover food. Better known sustainability schemes for these commodities have been developed and are recognised internationally. The EU strategy seems to ignore well-established schemes such as RSPO (palm oil), RTRS (soy) Rainforest Alliance and ISCC. In the biofuels sector, EU approved sustainability schemes for crop-based transport fuels, which have the strictest rules for no-deforestation, have been in place and working since 2011. These schemes provide the framework for certificatiion, together with the traceability system to track the crops from the farm to the end product.

Critics say that certification brings an increase in costs for the consumer. However, supermarket own label products, which compete on price with the big brands, are increasingly using sustainably certified ingredients, without losing their cost advantage. It is the case however that farmers will need help to increase their yields on existing land, or to reclaim degraded areas, to avoid expanding into the forest. This is where European aid could offer assistance in terms of know-how and finance. Reforestation of recently deforested land could also be included within the scope of such aid programmes. 

So although the new strategy offers food for thought, it is not an immediate recipe for success. Mandatory sustainability labelling is needed to mitigate the affect our appetite for tropical products is having on the world’s rainforests. 

Published: 28 August 19

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