Brazil’s Lula’s comeback cheered as new research claims ‘deforestation-free’ supply chain pledges have barely impacted forest clearance in Amazon

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Tarcisio Schnaider
Image: Getty/Tarcisio Schnaider

Related tags Brazil deforestation Soy Sustainability

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidential election win in Brazil will make it easier for food and beverage companies to comply with their zero-deforestation commitments, it has been claimed.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute said more companies must implement zero-deforestation supply chain commitments in order to significantly reduce deforestation.

Corporate pledges not to buy soybeans produced on land deforested after 2006 have reduced tree clearance in the Brazilian Amazon by just 1.6% between 2006 and 2015, they said. This equates to a protected area of just 2,300 km2 in the Amazon rainforest: barely the size of Oxfordshire in the UK.

The findings, made by tracing traders’ soy supplies back to their source, were published today (October 31) in the journal Environmental Research Letters​. They further revealed that zero-deforestation commitments have not been adopted effectively in Brazil’s tropical savannah, the Cerrado, leaving over 50% of soy-suitable forests and their biodiversity without protection.

Most soy is consumed indirectly by humans: soybean is widely used as feed for factory-farmed chickens, pigs, fish and cattle. It also accounts for around 27% of global vegetable oil production.

By 2021, at least 94 companies had adopted zero-deforestation commitments – pledging to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. But the study revealed that many of these commitments are not put into practice. The researchers added that adoption of zero-deforestation commitments is lagging among small and medium sized food companies.

A ‘soy moratorium’ was the first voluntary zero-deforestation commitment in the tropics – by signing it, companies agreed not to buy soybeans produced on land deforested after 2006. But while the commitment was implemented in the Brazilian Amazon, most Brazilian soy is produced in the Cerrado – which is rich in biodiversity.

“Zero-deforestation pledges are a great first step, but they need to be implemented to have an effect on forests – and right now it’s mainly the bigger companies that have the resources to do this,”​ said Professor Rachael Garrett, Moran Professor of Conservation and Development at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, a joint senior author of the report.

“If soybean traders actually implemented their global commitments for zero-deforestation production, current levels of forest clearance in Brazil could be reduced by around 40 percent.”

But she added that Lula’s election victory could make existing zero-deforestation pledges more effective.

“By improving deforestation governance in both the Amazon and the Cerrado, Lula will make it much easier, both politically and financially, for companies to comply with or, in the case of the Cerrado, to implement their zero-deforestation commitments,”​ she told FoodNavigator.

Under Lula's first presidency, Brazil was able to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 84% between 2004 to 2013 and he has already mentioned a goal of zero-deforestation during his acceptance speech.

Brazil has the largest remaining tropical forests on the planet, but these are being rapidly cleared to rear cattle and grow crops including soybean. Demand for soy is surging around the world, and an estimated 4,800 km2 of rainforest is cleared each year to grow soybeans.

According to Garrett, a supportive public policy may encourage more companies to adopt and implement their commitments in more regions of Brazil. We believe that a major reason that companies have not implemented their commitments outside of the Amazon is that the agricultural lobby was emboldened under Bolsonaro to fight back against companies who were trying to figure out ways to implement their commitments. The power of the agricultural lobby will be significantly reduced under Lula who is already promoting a discourse of zero-deforestation since his acceptance speech.”

She also expects Lula will help support jurisdictional efforts by helping to implement Brazil’s new payment for environmental services policy framework and channel resources towards jurisdictions that work with companies to help monitor and enforce zero-deforestation. “Finally, Lula will be able to attract more international finance to end deforestation in Brazil, which is a necessary complement to individual companies’ supply chain policies.”​ 

Elaborating on the new research Professor Rachael Garrett said there are three crucial gaps limiting the effectiveness of existing landscape of zero-deforestation pledges. “The existing commitments simply don’t cover enough of the sourcing regions to make a difference,”​ she said. “Many companies have already made bold global zero-deforestation commitments - not only for soy in the Cerrado and other at-risk areas, but also for palm, cocoa, and beef. Yet, too few of these commitments are actually implemented outside of the Amazon and regions of Indonesia. This leaves a major of the world’s tropical forests still at risk for agricultural expansion.”

Beside increasing the spatial coverage of commitments, she added, companies need to work with local governments to develop zero-deforestation monitoring and enforcement across large landscapes, not just individual farms, through so-called “jurisdictional approaches”. This, she noted, “can help channel incentives and finance toward ending deforestation across all actors and developing alternative livelihoods”.​  

Other campaigners welcomed Lula’s victory. WWF described it as proof that Brazilians want to preserve the environment. “Deforestation in the Amazon grew by 73% between 2019 and 2021 and in that period only we lost an area of forest larger than that of Belgium,”​ it said. “Lula's record in combating deforestation in the Amazon should make us optimistic, after all he managed to reduce annual rates by 70% between his first and last years in office.

“Reversing this situation will require time, intelligence, financial resources, international cooperation and, above all, political will. The election result demonstrates that at least the political will exists: the president-elect has said more than once that he would act firmly against illegal deforestation.”


Companies’ ‘deforestation-free’ supply chain pledges have barely impacted forest clearance in the Amazon

Environmental Research Letters

DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac97f6