Pressure builds on big economies to address agri-commodity import risks in wake of Amazon fires

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

G7 and UK Amazon aid pledges are meagre compared to their Brazilian beef purchases, while supermarkets still stocking high-risk Brazilian beef products as government responses are found wanting.

When news filtered out of Brazil in August that forest fires were ravaging the Amazon at record levels, international reaction was quick and damning.

Images of the world’s most biodiverse landmass up in smoke and the revelation that more than 70,000 fires had been chronicled in 2019 (an 85% increase from 2018) triggered global outrage.

From presidential statements and papal calls for action to viral celebrity social media posts, condemnation of the Amazon’s destruction spread in equally unprecedented fashion.

But in president Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has a premier who favours commodity cultivation over conservation and as the #Amazon trend recedes and media move elsewhere, questions remain over what, if any meaningful change the attention will deliver.

News of the arson in the Amazon has led governments to offer support, retailers to promise action and a fresh spotlight to be placed on the impact of global commodity consumption.

Demand for beef is by far the largest cause of deforestation in the Amazon, where 2000 square kilometres were destroyed in July – a 278% rise on the same month in 2018.

Now, new Earthsight research reveals how G7 aid commitments are dwarfed by their imports of potentially risky, deforestation-laced Brazilian beef and that UK supermarkets are still selling beef from a firm fined for illegally clearing the Amazon.

Inadequate aid

In the wake of the fire statistics being released by Inpe, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the UK government said it would donate £10m in aid and $20m was offered in partnership with its G7 allies.

However, the sums pale in comparison to the amount it forks out on beef from Brazil.

In 2018, the UK imported more than £96m of Brazilian beef – almost 20% of the total £530m which entered Europe, Earthsight analysis of shipment trade data shows.

Meanwhile, the G7 collectively imported $737.9m (£605.2m) of Brazilian beef last year – their $20m (£16.4m) aid offer would only cover 10 days of imports.

Greenpeace urged the G7 not to use the Amazon fires and criticisms of Bolsonaro’s anti- environment agenda to “disguise their own failures to act at home”.

“G7 countries must stop fuelling the destruction of the Amazon through the import of agricultural products associated with deforestation and soil degradation,” a Greenpeace statement said.

“Sweeping change to the global food system is needed, including a 50% cut in meat and dairy consumption by 2050 and rich countries such as the G7 should reduce that even further.”

Europe alone is the destination for around one-third of all globally traded commodities associated with deforestation. It is also Brazil’s second biggest trading partner – 19% of all EU soy imports last year originated from Brazil and one-tenth of all Brazilian beef for export is destined for the region.

The UK is in the top 10 destinations for the country’s beef and new Earthsight research has revealed how supermarkets are still sourcing products from a firm guilty of illegal Amazon deforestation.

Supermarket complicity?

Sainsbury’s and Morrisons were identified as selling products with beef from JBS by Earthsight in August. Morrisons use the Brazilian firm’s corned beef for their own-brand offering, while some of the Princes corned beef stocked in Sainsbury’s also originates from the São Paulo company.

Earthsight analysis reveals that JBS is supplying 46% of the Brazilian beef imported into the EU, 68% of that imported into the US and almost all the beef that is imported into Canada.

The world’s largest meatpacking firm has been the subject of a stream of scandals in recent years, involving slave labour, rotten meat, systematic bribery of officials and links to deforestation.

In 2017, two JBS-owned slaughterhouses bought nearly 50,000 heads of cattle from ranches guilty of illegal deforestation in the Amazon. The firm was fined £6.5m. JBS also stands accused of having purchased thousands of heads of cattle from a farm owned by a notorious Brazilian cattle rancher known as Jotinha, who was arrested in relation to a massive illegal deforestation case in 2016.

US campaign group Mighty Earth identified JBS in late August as being the firm most likely to be linked to the Amazon fires destruction, based on the location of its slaughterhouses.

“From 1993 to 2013, the cattle herd in the Amazon expanded by almost 200% reaching 60 million head of cattle,” The Companies Behind the Burning of the Amazon report stated.

“While deforestation for cattle had been reduced thanks to both private sector and government action… large international beef and leather companies and their customers and financiers continue to create markets for deforestation-based cattle.”

The new Earthsight research follows on from our May investigation which also named Lidl and Asda along with Italian brand Simmenthal and European retailer Carrefour as stocking JBS corned beef.

UK supermarkets continue to sell corned beef sourced from JBS in Brazil. Credit: Earthsight.

Corporate reaction

Supermarkets have remained silent on their suspect sourcing policies since the fires. Brands including Burger King, Walmart, Costco and Nestle were also called out by Mighty Earth for complicity in the Amazon destruction via their beef and soy purchases.

Meanwhile, those who finance producers and traders of forest-risk commodities are facing renewed scrutiny.

Asset management giant BlackRock was named by Friends of the Earth and others last week as among the top three shareholders in 25 of the world’s largest publicly listed “deforestation-risk” companies.

“BlackRock’s investments are directly causing the forest fires in the Amazon and deforestation around the globe,” FoE’s Jeff Conant said.

“By pumping money into the world’s most destructive agribusiness companies, Blackrock is destroying the environment and trampling the rights of forest-dwelling people. As the Amazon burns, BlackRock is reaping the profits of environmental destruction and climate chaos.”

Some positive action has been taken though. Norway and Germany pulled out as donors to the Brazilian government’s Amazon Fund due to recent surges in deforestation, while VF Corporation – whose brands include North Face, Timberland and Vans – halted leather imports from Brazil.

Consumers are taking a stand too. An online petition demanding Morrisons stop selling JBS beef, triggered by Earthsight’s research, had garnered in excess of 230,000 signatures as of early September.

A regulatory response?

France and Ireland threatened not to ratify the Mercosur free-trade agreement after the fires hit the headlines, while Finland – which currently holds the EU presidency – said the EU should consider a ban on Brazilian beef imports.

“Recent actions in Brazil in particular risk leading toward a vicious spiral toward further destruction of the rain forest,” Finland’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Krista Mikkonen wrote in a letter to the EU. “The international community cannot let the development reach a point of no return.”

However, no concrete plan has yet materialised on what action may be taken on the Mercosur deal, of which Brazil would be the largest beneficiary in Latin America, or in addition to the monetary offers put forward.

Corporate brands have issued similarly worthy rhetoric and promises to remove deforestation from their supply chains over the years but have failed miserably.

In July it was estimated that 50 million hectares of global forests have been destroyed for commodities in the past decade – a period in which the largest consumer brands pledged to end deforestation.

Greenpeace, FoE and others issued a plea for EU leaders to move beyond offering aid and not only suspend the Mercosur agreement (under which Brazil exports could accelerate) but pass new regulation to guarantee products sold in Europe are deforestation-free.

The plea followed on from an EU publication in July that sought to address deforestation in supply chains. The EU Communication continued to promote ‘voluntary’ corporate action but in mooting the possibility of new EU-wide regulation, it opened the door to a more substantial solution. Maybe now that the #Amazon is up in flames; action will be forthcoming.

“European citizens will not continue to allow further destruction of the forests we all depend on to stabilise our climate, maintain rainfall, nurture biodiversity and protect the world’s poorest people,” the NGO letter read.

Image credits: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.