Agribusiness lobby seeking to tame planned UK imported deforestation law

25.05.2021

  • Trade bodies for global beef, soy and palm oil companies fail to support strong supply chain legislation, FOI documents obtained by Earthsight reveal.
  • Groups, whose members include JBS, Minerva and other agribusiness giants connected to illegal deforestation, reluctant to back mandatory due diligence or sanctions for non-compliance.
  • Revelations come as environment and human rights groups call for strengthening of draft bill, under debate in parliament this week.
  • Powerful industry associations’ stance contrasts with that of consumer goods firms, who support calls for the law to be firmed up.
  • Current draft only tackles illegal deforestation, does not incorporate protections for indigenous peoples and leaves open the question of how meaningfully the law will be enforced.

London, 25 May 2021 – Despite public statements by large retailers and food brands supporting robust legislation to eliminate deforestation from UK supply chains, associations for the global beef, soy and palm oil sectors have questioned even some of the most basic elements of the landmark law set to be debated in parliament this week, FOI documents obtained by Earthsight reveal.

Responding to a Defra consultation late last year, several groups appear reticent to support strong due diligence regulation aimed at mandating businesses to halt deforestation-linked imports, while stopping short of opposing its introduction.

Documents reveal how powerful trade bodies failed to explicitly back proposals on binding due diligence and the prohibition to place forest-risk commodities (FRCs) linked to illegalities in the UK market, with one saying sanctions may “unnecessarily damage” business and shareholder confidence.

Part of the government’s flagship Environment Bill, the law is seen as vital in tackling the UK’s role in the climate and biodiversity crises. It is estimated that a football pitch of tropical forest was cleared every six seconds in 2019, often to make way for crops and cattle.

Under the plans, UK firms will be banned from importing FRCs such as beef, palm oil and soy and their derived products if linked to illegal deforestation.

However, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), Seed Crushers and Oil Processors Association (Scopa) and International Meat Trade Association (IMTA) – whose members include Brazilian meatpackers and known Amazon deforesters JBS and Minerva – told Defra in written responses they were reticent to back a penalties-based legislation.

IMTA and Scopa both said they “don’t know” if it should be illegal for firms to use FRCs produced unlawfully, while AIC called on government to “recognise and work with existing measures and initiatives in place before anything else” and said a law must not place “cost burdens” on businesses.

“The process must be extremely robust because it could unnecessarily and unwittingly damage the reputation of a firm,” AIC, which represents the UK's agri-supply industry and has over 260 members, wrote when asked if fines should be included.

“This is especially true of larger firms, national or multinational firms that are answerable to shareholders; it cannot be understated how damaging a Government issued fine or reprimand could be.”

Scopa, representatives for soy and palm oil giants ADM, AAK, Cargill and Sime Darby, said: “We are not comfortable with the threat of fines levied against companies contravening this law. Unless such contraventions could be defined in some way as deliberate or knowingly, the danger is companies could be penalised despite doing all in their power to comply.”

IMTA, which also counts JBS-owned Moy Park and US meat giant Tyson in its 90-plus membership online, did not directly support the law either and asked Defra: “Has consideration been given to an incentives-based approach rather than one focussing on fines?”

Implicated in vast deforestation of the Brazilian Cerrado and elsewhere, commodity giant Cargill was also unsure if fines should be levied for non-compliance. Its own response said that tracing products back to origin remains “significantly challenging” and questioned if a law would improve standards.

“There is a risk due diligence will not sufficiently overcome this [traceability issue], without harming supply chain resilience and efficiency, with associated cost impacts,” the response said.

Although it could “see the benefit” to a law, Scopa praised voluntary certification schemes and said they had been “transformative” at improving sustainability, while AIC extolled elements of such schemes closely linked to unsustainable practices and a failure to halt ecosystem destruction.

When asked if a due diligence system should be obligatory, the Chilled Foods Association said: “This is already done where possible, e.g. a certification or other checking system exists.” The group, whose members include Del Monte and owners of the Linda McCartney Foods brand Hain Daniels according to its website, also queried the merits of a public reporting system: “This is already challenged internally by many member companies.”

In contrast, Unilever, Nestle and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) urged government to strengthen the law by moving beyond the current focus on illegality and banning all deforestation-linked imports: “Whether land has been converted legally or illegally, this has the same effect on nature,” BRC, which represents over 170 retailers, said.

This position aligns with civil society calls to address one of the weakest aspects of the proposal, which ignores unsustainable forest loss that may be legal under local laws, not to mention challenges related to enforcement and backsliding in regulations in some producing countries.

The three groups, along with Cargill, also said that regulation should cover human rights abuses and apply to a broad range of businesses, irrespective of their size.

A “more comprehensive” law was needed to protect indigenous and local communities, Unilever said, while BRC added that the finance sector must also be held accountable: “For due diligence to be effective, it must cover the entire supply chain, which includes those financing actors involved in deforestation risk commodities.”

Earthsight director Sam Lawson said: “Big agribusinesses operating in the tropics claim to be serious about tackling deforestation, but their associations’ lukewarm response to this law is telling. They want the government to trust them to do the right thing. But they have repeatedly shown they cannot be trusted. This law needs to be given teeth.

"If the government is hoping to use this law to score brownie points with the international community when it hosts the climate COP in November, the existing draft must be strengthened.”

For more information, please contact: press@earthsight.org.uk

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