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Tesco, M&S and several other UK supermarkets admit that they cannot guarantee that soya from deforested areas is not in their supply chain despite commitments to phase out its use, the Guardian has found.
An investigation has revealed that Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and M&S all buy products from UK farmers using animal feed that includes soya from Argentina. About 14% of Argentina’s planted soya is in the north of the country, where deforestation has laid waste to huge areas of the Gran Chaco forest.
Argentinian officials have confirmed to the Guardian that there is no traceability system for soya from deforested areas, which appears to be mixed with soya from other parts of the country before being sold on to the UK and other parts of the world. Pablo Cortese, from Senasa, Argentina’s equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration, said there was no demand from buyers for traceability: “If the big grain traders demanded it, the same way that citrus fruit buyers demand it, Argentina would have no choice but to comply. It’s the buyer who imposes traceability always.”
The Guardian visited the Gran Chaco and saw bulldozers at work. Huge soya plantations stretched between small leftover islands of forest. A zoning system put in place by the Argentinian government a few years ago does not appear to have slowed the rapid deforestation, as seen in the satellite images produced by Global Forest Watch.
The local grain wholesalers buy soy from different farmers and regions and mix it in the same silos before they sell it to the larger grain trading companies. “It’s too difficult to trace soya in Argentina,” Cortese told the Guardian. “So it’s impossible to say, ‘This particular grain of soya came from this particular farm.’” The soy is then shipped out of private grain-exporting terminals in Argentina’s Rosario and San Lorenzo ports, with a significant amount coming to the UK. UK farms using feed that includes this soya supply a number of supermarkets, including Tesco, M&S, Asda and Morrisons.
Other producers and retailers are also likely to find Argentinian soya in their supply chain. The figures vary, because soya is traded under different classifications (soybeans, soymeal, oilcake) but according to MIT’s data about 55% of the UK’s soybean meal comes from Argentina.
UK retailers agree that there is a problem with soya traceability. Tesco said it has a detailed plan to eliminate deforested soya from its supply chain by 2025. Marks & Spencer agreed that Argentinian soya is in the company’s supply chain: it is working towards a 2020 goal of zero deforestation, and refers to the work of the Retailers’ Soy Group and the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya.
Asda is working towards sustainable soya sourcing by 2020 for its own-brand meat, fish and dairy products. It is also looking into its entire supply chain, with the aim of sourcing 100% responsible soya by 2025 for its primary protein range, including fresh meat, fish and milk. Morrisons did not respond to Guardian queries. (Full statements can be found here.)
But the problem is so extensive that many scientists and campaigners question whether voluntary initiatives will solve the problem. Soya is one of the global commodities most closely associated with deforestation, along with palm oil, beef, timber and paper, and it is the second largest driver of deforestation, according to WWF.
Production in South America, in particular, has expanded from 3% of the world’s soya in 1970 to 50% today, according to extensive research by Trase, a supply-chain initiative run by the Stockholm Environment Institute and NGO Global Canopy.
The destruction of tropical forests around the world continues to rise, with more than 3.6m hectares (8.9m acres) destroyed in 2018. Recent science has revealed just how critical a role forests will play if the world is to have any hope of slowing climate change.
So far most attention has been fixed on the Amazon and, to a lesser extent, the Cerrado forests in Brazil. The Chaco, which sprawls across Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, has largely gone beneath the radar. “Both the Cerrado and the Chaco have been given pitifully little attention to date compared with the Amazon, yet both biomes are more imperilled. In recent years the Cerrado has risen in prominence in great part because of a greater level of research and NGO attention in Brazil … By contrast the Chaco is mostly in Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia, countries that have received a tiny fraction of the research and surveillance of Brazil,” said Toby Gardner of Trase.
Argentina far outstrips the UK’s and Europe’s other suppliers when it comes to soya bean meal, the processed soya that is fed to farm animals. The UK imports 55% of its soya bean meal from Argentina, Italy imports 80%, and Spain 74%, according to MIT’s Observatory for Economic Complexity. Europe as a whole imports about half of its processed soya bean from Argentina alone. The country is also the world’s leading soya bean meal exporter, responsible for 40% of the planet’s total soya bean meal trade.
In the UK – one of a number of signatories to the Amsterdam declaration on deforestation – retailers and NGOs have been leading the call for solutions. A meeting in March 2018 brought together 60 representatives from companies like Tesco and Cargill, and led to the formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Soya, which is investigating ways to achieve a mass-market move to sustainable soya.
Some NGOs, investors and consumer groups have called for an extension of the “Amazon soya moratorium” to other biomes in South America, including the Gran Chaco. The same people argue that the moratorium needs to be extended because in its current form it has simply pushed deforestation to other regions – like the Chaco.
One possible route in Europe and the UK would be new regulations that require all companies of a certain size to file an annual report on the work they’ve done to clear deforestation – and other issues – from their supply chains. France already has a similar law, put in place in 2017. ClientEarth, the Forest Coalition and the Greener UK coalition have been leading calls for such a requirement to be included in the current environment law. ClientEarth is also among a number of organisations pushing the EU to look at similar regulation to fulfil the aims set by the deforestation communication published in July.