How can food companies stop contributing to deforestation? A panel of experts discussed solutions at a roundtable in New York
Half of the world’s rainforests have been felled in a century. If deforestation carries on at the same rate, they may be gone in 100 years. Food companies are a big part of the problem; agriculture is the largest single cause of forest loss. And they are also part of the solution, with hundreds making commitments to stop deforestation.
But as deforestation continues, what more can companies do? This was the question put to experts from the private, NGO, government and finance sectors at a recent roundtable on the topic, held in New York.
Partnership emerged as a major theme. Although progress has been made on governments, food companies and NGOs working together to end deforestation, several roundtable panellists emphasised the need to act more quickly to stop destruction of forests around the world.
“There isn’t enough action happening now to end deforestation. Companies must rectify their business practices before they expand into new territories, because that old model of industrial plantation isn’t delivering for the forest, for people or for the planet,” said Gemma Tillack, agribusiness campaign director at NGO Rainforest Action Network.
Brazil’s soy moratorium – a 2006 agreement between environmental groups and corporations where purchasers agreed to not buy soy produced on deforested land – was heralded by several panelists as an example of what can happen when collaboration is successfully implemented. “We need to replicate the extraordinary success of the soy moratorium in other parts of Latin America,” said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth. “We need to do it in south-east Asia on palm oil and spread it to other commodities like rubber.”
The key to the success of the soy moratorium – which is not without its critics – was effective collaboration, said Francisco J B Oliveira Filho, former director of policies to tackle deforestation in the Brazilian government. “It was a very hard discussion at the beginning,” he said. “But as soon as we got to know each other, we managed to reduce the illegal soy production related to deforestation in the Amazon region to the level that it’s almost 2–3%.”
The conversation took place alongside the UN general assembly, and the body’s sustainable development goals were mentioned as a way forward for governments and other parties on their commitments to end deforestation. “This week’s theme around sustainable development goal 17, and the critical nature of partnership to accomplish these very complex issues, feels very fitting,” said Diane Holdorf, chief sustainability officer at Kellogg. “Without the partnership of collective action, we’re not going to achieve our best.”
As well as working across sectors and along supply chains, Tillack added that companies had a role to play in encouraging each other to adhere to standards. “There is a very crucial peer-to-peer role. Don’t just rely on the NGOs to find the cases and pressure one company. We are the least resourced of all. That responsibility needs to go back to all of you guys that have big budgets.”
Many panellists highlighted the importance of working along the whole of the supply chain, from the smallholder farmers to the multinational companies to the banks who finance different parts of the chain.
Pavan Sukhdev, goodwill ambassador to the UN Environment Programme and chief executive of Gist Advisory, said that banks should consider risk to the environment in their processes. “As a banker for 25 years, one of my observations as a member of the risk committee was that, how come we do not have ecological value as a risk?” he said.
It is important to integrate rather than pressurise different parts of the chain, said Gabriela Burian, sustainable agriculture global lead for Monsanto and strategic adviser for food and agriculture in the Americas for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “Work as a team and then they can understand the value,” she said.
Burian added that new initiatives are not necessarily the answer. “Every six months we launch a new coalition and this is really hard to track, for companies to understand. Let’s deliver on what we have and scale up.”
Working with local governments is also vital, said Andrew Aulisi, senior director for public policy and government affairs at PepsiCo. “A lot of decisions are made at the local level,” he said. “There’s going to be a local desire to dedicate some of that land to agribusiness. We can’t allow our supply chain work to exist in a silo, where we think that we’ve created a clean supply chain but it’s existing in a parallel universe where the landscape is actually being degraded.”
The High Carbon Stock approach (HCS), which identifies forest areas that need to be protected as distinct from land which has been degraded so does not have a high biodiversity value, was presented as a way all those who contribute to deforestation can make more progress.
Tillack asked why the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) hadn’t adopted HCS as part of their standard for members. Dan Strechay, RSPO’s US representative for outreach and engagement, said the organisation is currently conducting a consultation with members and the public on revising their standard and the question of incorporating HCS is part of it.
Oliveira Filho laid out the challenge for coming decades: “How are we going to balance production to feed the world and protection for climate change, for biodiversity?”
Productivity is at the centre of the solutions, said Aulisi. “If you take a step back and look at sustainable agriculture globally the key is yield and productivity getting the most production on the smallest footprint.”
There are solutions out there, he said, but there is a lack of action to adopt them: “We have technologies and practices. We don’t need to invent anything, we could just take what we have now and put it to use on farms. And yet it seems at times there’s a lack of will to do it.”
The panellists agreed that working together was how action would get started. “Because at the end of the day everyone around the table is working on the same goal,” said Strechay.
On the panel
Luiz Amaral, global executive manager, global forest watch, commodities and finance, World Resources Institute
Andrew Aulisi, senior director, global environmental policy, public policy & government affairs, PepsiCo
Gabriela Burian, sustainable agriculture global lead; Strategic advisor for food and agriculture in the Americas, Monsanto; World Business Council for Sustainable Development
Davida Heller, vice president, corporate sustainability, Citi
Diane Holdorf, chief sustainability officer, Kellogg Company
Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive, Mighty Earth
Francisco JB Oliveira Filho, former director of policies to reduce deforestation, Ministry of the Environment of Brazil
Sara Law, vice president, global initiatives, CDP
Dan Strechay, US representative, outreach and engagement, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Pavan Sukhdev, chief executive; Author; UNEP goodwill ambassador, GIST Advisory; Corporation 2020
Gemma Tillack, agribusiness campaign director, Rainforest Action Network
Photograph: Bruno Kelly/Reuters