Page last updated at 11:10 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Big business leaves big forest footprints

Andrew Mitchell (Image: Global Canopy Programme)
Andrew Mitchell

Consumers around the globe are not aware that they are "eating" rainforests, says Andrew Mitchell. In this week's Green Room, he explains how many every-day purchases are driving the destruction of the vital tropical ecosystems.

Palm plantation (Image: GCP/Katherine Secoy)
Burning tropical forests drives global warming faster than the world's entire transport sector; there will be no solution to climate change without stopping deforestation

When was the last time you had a "rainforest picnic"? Or even, perhaps, an "all-day Amazon breakfast"?

Next time you are in a supermarket picking up a chicken sandwich for lunch, or fancy tucking in to a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and bacon before setting off for work, spare a thought for the Amazon.

A new report by Forest Footprint Disclosure reveals for the first time how global business is driving rainforests to destruction in order to provide things for you and me to eat.

But it does also reveal what companies are doing to try to lighten their forest footprint. Sadly, however, the answer is: not much, at least not yet.

Consumers "eat" rainforests each day - in the form of beef-burgers, bacon and beauty products - but without knowing it.

The delivery mechanism is a global supply chain with its feet in the forests and its hands in the till.

Because of growing demand for beef, soy and palm oil, which are in much of what we consume, as well as timber and biofuels, rainforests are worth more cut down than standing up.

Supermarket sweep

Governments, which claim to own 70% of them, create prosperity for their nations through this process, but poor forest communities need their forests for energy and food.

The report shows that the EU is the largest importer of soy in the world, much of it coming from Brazil.

It also shows that after China, the EU is the biggest importer of palm oil in the world.

Soy provides cheap food to fatten our pigs and chickens, while palm oil is in everything from cakes and cookies, to that fine moisturiser you gently rubbed into your cheeks this morning.

I have become a bit of a bore in supermarkets, challenging my kids to hunt for soy lecithin or palm oil (often disguised as vegetable oil) on product labels. You should try it! The stuff is everywhere.

The gargantuan farms of Brazil's Mato Grosso State can boast 50 combines abreast at harvest time, marching across monoculture prairies where once the most diverse ecosystem on Earth stood, albeit in some cases many years ago.

Rainbow and tropical forest (Image: Forest Disclosure)

Further north, thousands of square miles of rainforest natural capital is going up in smoke each year, often illegally, to provide pastureland for just one cow per hectare to supply beef hungry Brazilians or more prosperous mouths in China and India.

Many of the hides from these cattle then go into the designer trainers, handbags or luxury car upholstery that wealthy markets have such an appetite for.

Few Europeans know that their fine steak au poivre or choice after dinner mints might have an added expense on the other side of the world that unknown to them, is altering life on Earth.

None of this would matter but for three things. Firstly, evolution is being changed forever. Most of us, sadly, can live with that.

Secondly, burning tropical forests drives global warming faster than the world's entire transport sector; there will be no solution to climate change without stopping deforestation.

Finally, losing forests may undermine food, energy and climate security. Yet saving them could, according to UN special adviser Pavan Sukhdev's forthcoming review on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), reduce environmental costs by $3-5 trillion per year.

Oh yes, let us not forget the 1.4bn people, many of them the world's poorest, who depend on these forests for their survival and who cannot afford to lose them, even if we can.

Full disclosure?

So what can be done? The first thing is to encourage business to mind its "forest footprint".

The impact global business has on deforestation will be a key factor in halting deforestation in the future. No amount of hand-wringing in the UN climate talks will alter action on the ground unless the drivers of global deforestation are also tackled.

Whilst poverty is possibly the largest of these drivers, so is the way in which business drives the conversion of cheap forest land to feed their global commodity supply chains - all the way to you and me.

Lorry carrying logs on dusty road (Image: GCP/Katherine Secoy)

This is why we launched the Forest Footprint Disclosure project last year: to invite companies to first recognise their impact on forests and then disclose what they were doing about it.

Such a request might be ignored by giant businesses if it were not for the fact that investment managers, with at least $3.5 trillion of assets, also wanted to know and backed our disclosure request with their names.

Why? Because it is their money that may be at risk if the companies do not clean up their act.

In 2009, Amigos da Terra's report Time to Pay the Bill, and Greenpeace's Slaughtering the Amazon highlighted the cattle industry as a driver of climate change responsible for the bulk of Brazil's greenhouse gases through deforestation and methane emissions from 180 million cows.

This resulted in the withdrawal of a $60m loan from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation to Bertin, Brazil's largest exporter of beef.

In June 2009, Brazil's major supermarkets - Pao de Acucar, Wal-mart, and Carrefour - all announced they would no longer accept beef from ranches involved in deforestation.

In July, sportswear manufacturer Nike said it would not accept leather in its products from Brazil if it came from deforested areas.

And in October, JBS Friboi, Bertin, Mafrig and Minerva - the largest players in Brazil's cattle industry - all agreed to similar action.

Daniel Azeredo, a Federal Public Prosecutor in Para State, has recently filed legal actions totalling $1bn against 22 ranches and 13 meat-packing plants for non-compliance with federal laws governing deforestation.

'Extraordinary time'

The effects are rippling all the way up the supply chain - well, to you and me again.

Consumers and businesses can play their part by demanding that their suppliers know where their "Forest Risk Commodities" come from. But will they?

Evidence from certification schemes shows that consumers care but not enough to get their wallets out.

Burning of Amazon rainforest (Greenpeace)

If business cannot secure a premium for the extra costs of producing the good stuff, why should they bother?

I believe, however, that we are at an extraordinary time in human history when all that could be about to change.

What all this is evidence of is a quickening step in a remarkable journey that will result in nothing less than the transformation of the 21st Century economy.

Curbing emissions from deforestation, which was the outsider in the UN negotiations just two years ago, has moved to become the front-runner. It is now widely recognised that forests offer the quickest, most cost-effective and largest means of curbing global emissions between now and 2030.

So, are we at a tipping point in history where this could actually happen?

Conservation will never out-compete commerce with a global population rising toward nine billion.

Feeding and fuelling our growing world is one of the greatest opportunities of the 21st century, but sending natural capital up in smoke and squandering ecosystems that support wealth creation in the process will, ultimately, be counterproductive.

Businesses that understand this will be the rising stars of the future. Our report provides some of the first insights into who the potential winners and losers may be, and which business are setting the pace today.

Investors will want to spot them.

Andrew Mitchell is Chairman of the Forest Footprint Disclosure project and Executive Director of the Global Canopy Programme

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Andrew Mitchell? Are people oblivious to the environmental impact of their every-day purchases? Are businesses doing enough to help consumers make informed choices? Or are trees too valuable as a economic commodity to be saved from the saw?

I sometimes wonder if many people really do understand the implications of the purchases they make, whether food or other items.

Many I'm sure are really unaware of just what it means when a part of the rain forest (wherever it is) is cleared for some type of arible use, use for grazing for cattle or simply to grow items that eco-fuel can be made from...

Although it may be a few thousand miles away when it starts, the greater implication to the envoroment at once at the site can occur, with deeper implications to come as time goes on in that local area and then it moves throughout that country with growing implications...until eventually the implications hit us in the face...

It can not be ever economical to fly, ship or road or even rail freight these items throughout the world just so some operators can make big bucks...when we purchase any item that has had to travel a long way instead of being produced within our own country - we are simply adding to the world's enviromental situation and thus take no responsibility.

Are businesses doing enough to help me?

...a small percentage maybe...the rest have just profit on their minds!!!

Whist any plant that is growing in the ground takes in CO2 and emits Oxygen into the atmosphere, the trees heaved done with do the job a lot better and overall if left in place...everyone in the world benefits...
Martin Swift, ALLOA. SCOTLAND.

iam saddend to see the rainforests dissapear. i have been to many rainforest countries.i think it is to late to save them. human population is growing to fast .that is why i go to these countries most years.there has got to be more done.i agree with mr mitchell. i visited sepilok in borneo 10years ago and except ror the reserve it was just palmoil plantations.until the population is brought under control we must just watch more rainforest being lost
andrew kyle, leicestershire england

People seem oblivious to what is happening to the rainforests and it seems out of sight out of mind, there needs to be much more education about the the damage that is being done. Businesses are not doing enough to help consumers make informed choices, and the trees are precious and people should be informed about this. I don`t think people associate what they are eating and buying with the damage that is being done to the rainforests
Ann Crow, Woking, Surrey UK.

Agree fully, but when will world authorities announce that world population is stupidly high, and is unsupportable already. Difficult to solve, I know, but control is needed to slow future growth, and perhaps avoid WW3 - the land/food war.
Phil Rock, Warwickshire, UK

Big business go's into places to make money and then leave, leaving the place a mess.

before they go into a place, they need to sign someone that saids that when we leave will we replant, clean up all the mess we make, so that you will not be able to tell that we were here.

and if they don't do this then the company give fine and then pay for the clean up and planting. and with the fine, they should be no limit so it force the company
Chris Chambers, UK

Please publicise the use of palm oil in foods and cosmetics - consumers will purchase ethically, they just need to know what to look for. And manufacturers - if it's vegetable oil but not palm oil tell us! Then I'll buy your product. Like the writer, my shopping is now slowed up by label reading, but if it makes a difference I'll do it.
Donna, London, UK

'Further north, thousands of square miles of rainforest natural capital is going up in smoke each year, often illegally, to provide pastureland for just one cow per hectare to supply beef hungry Brazilians or more prosperous mouths in China and India.' - The author should consider checking the source which tells him about increased beef consumption in india....traditionally due to relegious reasons indian beef consumption has been among the lowest in the world.

In any case india should not be bracketed wih china whose per capita meat consumption according to guardian is 52.4kg while for india it is a paltry 5 kg.

Barring this factual anomaly the article is a splendind effort in making us understand the economic dynamics of deforestation.
susruthan, norwich

if we had more days off which would mean less comuting then maybe they would also have time to plant a tree.
todd, mesa,az,usa

I think it is absurd to believe that the future of forests or planet earth could somehow be decided by the conscience of the consumer. Consumers and the consumer driven society do not have a conscience no matter what the externality is. Like little children who do naughty things, they will keep doing it as long as they are allowed to get away with it.
Tony, Christchurch, New Zealand

Yes people are oblivious, and even when they're not, if the solution means being even slightly inconvenienced they won't consider it. Since the impending disaster doesn't show on short-term bottom-lines, big business isn't worried. Most stockholders think money will save them from the consequences of their own greed and ignorance. In short, people prefer to stick their heads in the sand and hope the disaster happens to their children, instead of them... which in itself says something about the values held by "civilized" societies.
Morgaine, Willis, VA USA

For years and years, I've felt the impact of deforestation of the rainforest was going to have a hugh impact on climate change but it has always been ignored. I believe most people are unaware. The UN, governments and corporations need to initiate a hugh awareness campaign. "It is now widely recognised that forests offer the quickest, most cost-effective and largest means of curbing global emissions between now and 2030" would be a good starting point. Everyone needs to realize that "cheap" isn't sustainable. Thank you for this very important article.
Suzie, Lakewood, OH, USA

I agree with Andrew Mitchell. People are oblivious to the environmental impact of everyday purchases because of fraudulent labeling on products. If manufacturers had to list the environmental impact of all the ingredients in their products and the scandalous Rainforest Alliance outfit demanded that all ingredients (not just the cocoa in palm oil-laden chocolate) were OK before giving out certification then that might help.
Matthew Stannard, Londin,UK

Willfully targeted and coordinated multi-media advertising campaigns by most major corporations stress gross over consumption that is universally and unilaterally disconnected from the resulting adverse environmental, health and economic harm to their customers. The truth is NOT in them or their commercial and political free speech. A misinformed population is easily lied to and lead blindly to avoidable calamity and near certain self destruction.
J. Bridy, Philadelphia, PA , USA

No I don't think companies are doing enough. Clearer food labels are essential, let people make their own minds up on which products are best to buy. If a company is choosing to be a part of the Forest Footprint Disclosure let their package say so boldly and put other companies to shame. We need to start educating the public to as to what is environmentally sound to buy and schemes like this is a good start. More publicity is needed on a local scale to get people to sit up and listen.
Mrs Williams, Liverpool, England

The global market demands that natural resources are used for our daily use. Without these natural resources we would descend into utter chaos as people would have to learn to live from the land again - This is not possible for every man, woman and child as so many live in urbanised areas; where the land they 'own' is one, two, three or more levels above ground. People I beleive are slightly oblivious to their impact globally. It is up to us all, not just the businesses to make ourselves aware of the increasing demand and impact of our everyday purchases. However, to make people aware - you first have to make them see - to make them see you have to educate. The individuals that do the most damage are already educated - or at least so they thought. It has to be the responsibility of all countries - including the most affected to make the message clear - stop deforestation or we are ALL going to hurt!!
Garry, London, London

I agree with Andrew Mitchell all the way, but I don't see how the businesses which are actively sensitive to the value of our ecosystems can become the 'rising stars' of the future, while consumers (stubbornly?) remain unenlightened on the fact.
Mel Heyworth, Blackpool, England

trees are very much in important in balance earth because it biodiversity and nutrient loosing them,therefore they too valuable as a economics commodity and have to be save from the saw.
mohammed kabir biu, kano,Nigeria

The planet is overpopulated.We have to control our population and force people stop having children over 2.Most people do not need to have any;government needs to force contraceptives,etc...and stop the cycle of people[especially young people] breeding like rats
Lawerence Carter, West Union,SC USA

It is no use knowing about the destruction of the rain forest. Our current immorality in sustaining capitalism means that all such protest is meaningless except for the conscience of the individual. Note how food labelling is skewed to business. How all trade laws favour corporations. However much we brag and delude ourselves, the individual and our earth are secondary items to greed which is camouflaged by different names.
Bala Nair, Stanley, Co: Durham, UK

This is a 'no-brainer'. The future of our children, if not humanity, depends on curbing emissions from deforestation. The damage done is permanent and at this level will, no doubt, have a dramatic effect on global climate change. The combined effects of CO2 and non-CO2 gasses such methane may well trigger a environmental collapse and subsequent 'mass extinction' at a rate never seen before.
Tim Isherwood, Toronto, Canada

Forest Footprint Disclosure strikes me as a very shrewd and enlightened initiative. The big companies involved know where their palm oil/soy is coming from, but your average shopper does not. It is good to know that large investors support the move, as this is vital to its success.
Alan Lunt, Nuneaton

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