You may not realise it but some of the everyday items we innocently consume are indirectly fuelling the destruction of the Amazon.
UK farms supplying milk and dairy products for Cathedral City Cheddar, Anchor butter and Cadbury chocolate feed their cattle soy from a controversial agribusiness accused of widespread deforestation in Brazil.
The complex soy supply chains that link British dairy to environmental devastation thousands of miles away in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado region have been uncovered by a probe led by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, alongside Greenpeace Unearthed, Repórter Brasil, Daily Mirror and ITV News.
Both areas are critical for biodiversity and tackling climate breakdown. The Cerrado region, where most of Brazil’s soy is grown, is home to 5% of the world’s plant and animal species.
Anna Jones, Greenpeace UK’s head of forests, said: “Many people will be appalled to hear that their cheese and butter are linked to forest destruction on the other side of the Atlantic.
“And yet huge chunks of Brazilian forests and other vital ecosystems are still being cut down to grow tonnes and tonnes of soya that’s then fed to chickens, pigs and dairy cows in the UK. The global meat and dairy industry is fuelling the climate and nature emergency, and this needs to stop.”
She added how the British government “should seize the opportunity to end deforestation in UK supply chains” by introducing a strong deforestation law and a meat and dairy reduction strategy in line with climate science.
“This would set a clear benchmark for world leaders to follow.”
The investigation uncovered how farms, which sell milk to Cadbury, Saputo, the largest manufacturer of branded cheeses in the UK, and Arla, which makes Anchor Butter and supplies milk to Asda, source some of their animal feed from companies buying Brazilian soy exported by the US grain giant Cargill.
Cargill, the world’s biggest food firm, has previously faced allegations of its soy being linked to deforestation.
Last year an investigation revealed 800 sq km of deforestation and more than 12,000 recorded fires on land used or owned by a handful of it’s soya suppliers in the Cerrado since 2015.
The firm dominates the soy trade into the UK, controlling about 70% of the market. It ships more than 100,000 tonnes of soya beans to the UK every year from Brazil’s Cerrado region alone.
The Bureau found how one of Cargill’s biggest suppliers, Grupo Scheffer, has been responsible for multiple incidents of environmental damage, including clearing swathes of tropical forest.
A reporting team on the ground in the Cerrado found recent deforestation linked to a soy farmer selling to the Brazilian agribusiness empire.
Grupo Scheffer, one of Brazil’s largest soy producers, which processed more than 560,000 tonnes of soy, corn and cotton last year, has been responsible for a series of environmental infractions. In 2019, the company was fined more than $450,000 for illegally clearing more than 5 sq km of protected forest.
Since 2008, the producer has been linked to the clearance of at least 24 sq km of forest to expand its operations, analysis by group Aidenvironment has found. The organisation used satellite images to quantify the slash and burn activity within the limits of at least 21 farms leased by Grupo Scheffer or registered to the company and its shareholders.
The investigation also raises questions about Cargill’s sustainable soy certification.
It’s Triple S scheme is hailed by some food companies as an environmentally friendly option, although it allows deforestation-free soy to be mixed with beans from non-certified sources, which may include farms involved in forest destruction.
The British dairy industry used an estimated 360,000 tonnes of soy from countries including Brazil, Argentina and the US as animal feed in 2019. This volume is dwarfed only by the poultry sector’s usage of soy and makes dairy farms the UK’s second-biggest consumer of soy-based feed.
Kerry McCarthy, the shadow minister for green transport and MP for Bristol East, said: “These revelations are yet more proof that overseas deforestation is deeply embedded in UK supply chains and in everyday supermarket products.
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“Even more shocking, is that much of this deforestation was legal under local laws. The government knows this is a huge problem, yet its own proposals on eliminating deforestation from supply chains will only apply if that deforestation is illegal.”
A Cargill spokesperson said: “Cargill has worked relentlessly to build a more sustainable soy supply chain, helping to address the urgent challenge of protecting native forests and vegetation, while supporting farmers and their communities.
Grupo Scheffer said it had been cultivating soybeans for 30 years. “Throughout this period, we have been growing and evolving in a responsible way, always respecting practices that guarantee the longevity of the soil and the environment,” the company said.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are working together to tackle deforestation and drive greater uptake of certified sustainable soya in their supply chains.”
Saputo, which makes Cathedral City Cheese, said: “From early 2022, our Davidstow Farm Standards will mandate that all farms which supply to Saputo Dairy UK’s Davidstow creamery must source feed from suppliers with a sustainable soy purchasing policy.”
The company said that for the past two years, it had bought credits used to support producers who cultivate soy responsibly.
An Asda spokesperson said: “We understand the importance of sustainable soy to our customers and are committed to reducing food production linked to deforestation.” The company said it was working with suppliers on a plan to ensure all its soya is “physically certified” by 2025.
Arla said it did not recognise Cargill’s Triple S as “a certification that meets our requirements of responsible production”. A spokesperson said: “Both Arla and the dairy farmers that own our cooperative are taking steps to manage our use of soy responsibly.” But they admitted: “We do not monitor the suppliers chosen by our farmer owners for their businesses.”
The dairy company added that since 2014, it had bought credits that support responsible soy farming. Arla described soy as a “small but important” part of cows’ diet and said some of its farmers were looking at homegrown alternatives such as pea protein.
A Mondelez, which makes Cadbury, spokesperson said: “Eliminating deforestation is critical to protecting the local ecosystems that farmers need to produce sustainable raw materials.
“We’re working with manufacturers to promote sustainable business practices and have asked the UK Government to legislate for mandatory reporting across the whole supply chain, so we can source deforestation-free commodities such as soy.
“As part of our commitment to tackling deforestation, we have made it clear that we expect all our UK diary suppliers to work with us and contractually commit to ensuring they are sourcing 100% deforestation free feed by 2023.”
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