Leading European supermarkets, food manufacturers and fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, are expected to pledge today not to use soya illegally grown in the Amazon region in response to evidence that large areas of virgin forest are being felled for the crop.
In a victory for consumer power, the companies say they will not deal with the four trading giants who dominate production in Brazil unless they can show they are not sourcing soya from areas being farmed illegally. The traders met in Sao Paolo last week and are expected to sign up to a moratorium on using soya grown in the Amazon.
The deal has been brokered by Greenpeace which, in an investigation earlier this year, linked the illegal destruction of the forest to large-scale soya farming financed by US-based commodity multinationals Cargill, ADM and Bunge.
Investigators say that they spent three years tracing the movement of soya from illegal plantations in the Amazon through the US-based firms to chicken factories in European countries including Britain. The Amazon-grown soya was found to be going into the supply chain of McDonald’s, KFC, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Unilever. After the report was published in the Guardian, the companies feared a consumer backlash and pushed traders to clean up their supply chain.
Under the moratorium, the big US-based traders, together with the Brazilian firm Gruppo Maggi, are expected to pledge not to buy soya from any areas of the rainforest cleared from now on. They will also pledge not to buy from soya plantations linked to slavery.
Where rainforest has already been cleared and land used illegally, they are expected to negotiate new systems to ensure farmers start complying with Brazilian law.
Large-scale farmers have moved into the Amazon from states in southern Brazil, but the inquiry said few had legal title to the land. Environmental laws that required farmers developing land to retain 80% of it as forest and only use 20% for agriculture were being ignored.
The traders were accused of providing illegal soya farmers with seed and finance to grow the crops and export them. The new deal will require the traders to check land titles and not to buy from farmers who have cleared more than 20% of forest.
Cargill said in February that most supplies came from land that had earlier been deforested. Greenpeace disputed this. The mood among retailers and fast-food chains is that any raw material that causes embarrassment is unacceptable.
Several British supermarkets buy Brazilian chicken linked to rainforest soya for their ready meals or special offers. Companies such as McDonald’s were linked to rainforest destruction because meat factories in Europe were using Brazilian soya feed from the big traders. The companies are believed to have been highly influential in forcing the multinational traders to agree to reform.
Environmental campaigners in Brazil welcomed the moratorium but warned it would be hard to undo the damage. Father Edilberto Sena, director of the Catholic radio station in the Amazon region and a leading protester against soya farming, said the deal was “a good start”.
“It’s not a solution to the problem,” he said. “Between 60,000 and 80,000 hectares [150,000-200,000 acres] of land in our region has already been destroyed … To restore the forest and enforce this will require huge investment.”
Yesterday Karen Van Bergen, McDonald’s vice-president, Europe, said: “McDonald’s has had a long-standing policy not to source beef from recently deforested areas in the Amazon rainforest, so it was important to us to bring soya sourcing in line with this policy.
“McDonald’s Europe has already asked its suppliers, including Cargill, to source non-GM, non-Amazon feed for poultry as from next harvest.”
The British Retail Consortium, which represents all major supermarkets, said: “Retailers have responded positively to Greenpeace’s concerns over the environmental impacts of soya farming in the Amazon by putting in place a system to trace the source of the soya used in all products.”
A Cargill spokeswoman said it was unable to comment on the moratorium ahead of the announcement, but added: “We have had good industry discussions in Brazil and we are very optimistic.”
The soya bean has been grown in China and used in different ways for thousands of years but almost half the world’s production is now in the US, which produces 70m tonnes a year. Other leading producers are Argentina, China, India and, increasingly, Brazil, which is expected to overtake US output within a few years. The bulk of the crop is solvent extracted for vegetable oil, with soya meal used for animal feed. A tiny proportion is consumed directly as human food. Apart from foods, soya beans are now used in industrial products such as oils, soap, cosmetics, resins, plastics, inks, crayons, solvents, vodka and biodiesel. Clearing land for industrial soya farming is taking over from timber as the major driver of forest loss in some regions.
Guardian Newspapers Limited