On the EU’s plate every day: deforestation and natural destruction

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The EU is responsible for 16% of ‘imported’ tropical deforestation, writes Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove. Will the new deforestation EU law live up to its promises? [Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda / EPA-EFE]

The EU is responsible for 16% of ‘imported’ tropical deforestation, writes Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove. Will the new deforestation EU law live up to its promises?

Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove is the senior forest policy officer at the WWF European Policy Office, and one of the lead authors of the recent WWF report Stepping up: The continuing impact of EU consumption on nature.

It’s official: The EU is playing a massive role in the destruction of tropical forests, savannahs and wetlands around the world. New research shows quite how huge our responsibility is; in fact, EU consumption has accounted for as much as 16% of nature destruction associated with global trade in the period between 2005-2017, second only to China.

So, what’s the link between our beloved hamburgers, chocolate spread or omelettes and tropical forests? It’s what goes into these products: the soy to feed European cows, pigs and chickens, the palm oil that is so ubiquitous in everything from biscuits to shampoo, the beef from Latin America that ends up on European plates, the cocoa in our chocolate (and not just here in Belgium).

Precious natural ecosystems around the world are being cleared to grow crops and provide grazing land for cattle, and that destruction is happening at an alarming rate, with disastrous consequences for the climate, for wildlife, and also for the communities living and depending on this land.

Right now, these products are getting the green light to enter EU markets, regardless of their environmental impact. We may not be personally setting fire to the Amazon, but by accepting these products onto our supermarket shelves, no questions asked, we’re a big part of the problem.

The time to become part of the solution has come. And currently, the European Commission is in the process of preparing the best possible instrument: an EU law on deforestation; a proposal is expected before the end of June.

So far, so good. But of course, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. Critical questions must be answered, such as, Which commodities should be covered? And what if they were produced ‘legally’ in the country of origin, even if this involved nature destruction (think Brazil)?

Should it focus only on deforestation, or also take into account other ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands and mangroves? What are the best sustainability criteria to make it an effective law?

Destruction is currently moving fast into other ecosystems beyond forests, which are also being destroyed to make room for crops and cattle. The value of these ‘other ecosystems’ is often wildly underestimated; in fact, they are equally threatened with conversion into agricultural land, and equally precious for the climate and biodiversity.

For instance, the Brazilian Cerrado – 50% of which has already been lost, largely due to the unsustainable production of soy and livestock – is one of the most biodiverse grasslands on the planet, housing a third of Brazil’s biodiversity, and storing around 13.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

If the EU law neglects to include these ecosystems, this will most likely increase the pressure on them, for example by ‘displacing’ agricultural production from forests to savannahs. For it to have a real impact, the scope of the law must go beyond forests.

Unfortunately, it is currently very questionable if ecosystems other than forests will be covered in the Commission’s proposal, so there is a huge risk that we end up with a puzzle where a critical piece is missing.

The new legislation must also cover the most important commodities and products that may cause nature destruction: soy, palm oil, beef, cocoa, coffee etc. Further, to be placed on the EU market, products must be truly sustainable and not ‘just’ produced legally according to the country of origin.

This means that they must meet human rights related and environmental sustainability criteria that are firmly based on science and clearly laid down in EU legislation.

How do we think this could work? Laws to introduce mandatory requirements for due diligence for businesses and the finance sector to ensure risk assessment and mitigation, traceability of commodities and transparency of supply chains would help.

And last but not least, the EU should also strengthen its cooperation with producing countries, in order to support global efforts to put an end to deforestation, nature destruction, and human rights violations. In parallel, consumers can also play their part, by taking a critical look at our own consumption, in particular that of meat and dairy products.

The new deforestation law is a massive opportunity for the EU to start becoming part of the solution. The European Commission must use these new findings as a final wake-up call and come forward with strong and effective legislation to comprehensively tackle the EU’s footprint.

Around 1.1 million people participated in the Commission’s public consultation last year, demanding a strong, ambitious law.

Now it’s up to our legislators to make this happen – plenty of eyes will be on them to hold them to account.

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