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When shopping at the supermarket, many of us try to make ethical choices about the foods we buy. Is it harmful to the planet? Is it cruelty-free? Have the farmers been paid fairly? Increasingly, many of us will even choose which supermarkets we shop at because of how we perceive their attention to ethical issues.

Supermarket Spin

Sometimes though, as shoppers, we are operating in the dark. This is especially the case with meat products. Industrial meat is the world’s largest driver of deforestation, wildlife extinction, and displacement of Indigenous Peoples. Meat, dairy, and aquaculture cause more climate Pollution than all the world’s cars, trucks, and ships combined.

Production of livestock feed, combined with the use of cows, pigs, and other animals for food, is responsible for 57 percent of all food production emissions. A considerable part of animal agriculture’s climate Pollution comes from methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

But despite its significant environmental impacts, supermarkets try their best to persuade us that the meat on their shelves is ‘sustainable’. They will promote poultry, pork, and other meats as “100% home-grown”, so people are more inclined to trust that the meat has been produced ethically and without being transported thousands of miles. This is especially true for meat certified as free-range and organic. Supermarkets rely on these labels to reassure us that the animals have had a decent life or that the farms they’ve come from are environmentally friendly.

But they’re not telling us the whole truth.

What Really Lies On The Shelf

One thing we’re often blind to is how the animals have been fed. Livestock reared in Europe and North America are often fattened with feed grains imported from abroad. Amongst the most common animal feeds is soy, much of which is grown in South America. In the early 2000s, soy production became a major driver of destruction in the Brazilian Amazon, as farmers pushed into the forest to meet the insatiable demand for meat from Europe, China, and North America.

This devastation led campaigning groups such as Greenpeace to expose how McDonald’s and other fast food and supermarket chains were serving up meat that was likely fed on soybeans grown on rainforest destruction. They demanded grain traders stop sourcing from the Amazon region and called on restaurant chains and retailers to ban meat reared on Amazon soy from their supply chains.

The resulting consumer pressure led grain traders to collectively agree that they would no longer buy any soy grown on land deforested after 2006 (later amended to 2008). This agreement, known as the Amazon Soy Moratorium, was renewed every subsequent two years until 2016 when it was adopted “indefinitely“.

The results were dramatic: in the two years before the announcement, 30 percent of new soy plantations in the Brazilian Amazon came from the destruction of forests. After the agreement, that number dropped to just one percent.

Whack-a-Mole Soy

The Amazon Soy Moratorium is rightly pointed to as a success story of how collective action by the food industry can successfully tackle tropical deforestation.

But the story has a sting in its tail.

Although big agribusiness companies drastically reduced their purchases of Amazon soy, the demand for animal feed in Europe and North America had not gone away. Seeking new pastures, grain traders operating in Brazil shifted the focus of soy production from the Brazilian Amazon to the vast wooded savannah area to the south known as the Cerrado.

In other words, the classic ‘whack-a-mole’ effect, where a problem seemingly solved in one place, rears its head elsewhere.

Less well known than the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado is the world’s most biodiverse savannah and wooded grassland, home to 5 percent of the planet’s animals and plants. It contains about 200 species of mammals, 860 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, 150 species of amphibians, 1,200 species of fish, and 90 million species of insects.

But over recent years, the Cerrado has become a global hotspot for soy and cattle-driven deforestation and has already lost about half of its native vegetation. By 2030, the Cerrado is projected to lose tens of millions of additional acres of native vegetation. This has been almost entirely driven by the demand for meat in overseas markets.

Retailers Respond On Paper… But Not In Practice

Again, it took persistent advocacy by groups such as the campaigning organization Mighty Earth to push grain traders, livestock producers, and retailers to address the problem of soy-driven destruction in the Cerrado.

Although furthest from the source of the problem, supermarkets are arguably the most important link in that chain. They ultimately can say to soy traders like Cargill or meat packers like the Brazilian company JBS: “We won’t buy from you unless you can assure us that the feed or meat products are completely free of all deforestation and ecosystem destruction”. The power retailers wield means that companies who supply them would have to comply or risk losing their biggest customers.

In recognition of this, a group of European supermarkets belonging to the Retail Soy Group pledged not to sell any meat products fed with soy that was grown on land cleared after August 2020. These include retail giants such as Ahold Delhaize, Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Migros, M&S, Sainsbury, Tesco, Waitrose, and Woolworths.

But while those commitments represent a big step in the right direction, they need to be backed up by tougher action to prevent meat fed with soy linked to deforestation in the Cerrado from landing on supermarket shelves.

An analysis published by Mighty Earth in early July 2022 found that five major global soy traders – Bunge, Cargill, COFCO, LDC, and ALZ Grãos – continued to buy soy from Brazilian suppliers and conglomerates who had cleared at least 27,000 hectares of land in the Cerrado after the August 2020 cut-off date. That is an area larger than the city of Edinburgh in Scotland, or half the size of Chicago.

In their collective reaction to Mighty Earth’s investigation, members of the Retail Soy Group acknowledged that the “allegations… towards the identified traders, particularly those related to illegal deforestation, raise serious concerns that retailers will be engaging the traders on to understand what actions are being taken to address them.”

So, what does this mean in practice?

Mighty Earth has written to twelve supermarkets within the Retail Soy Group, as well as the French retailer Carrefour, urging them to investigate the findings and to immediately cut ties with key soy traders linked to this recent destruction of the Cerrado. The campaigners have since published a list of individual supermarket responses.

As of July 22, 2022, these responses have ranged from non-existent (Lidl and Migros); to a simple acknowledgment of the findings (Aldi, Asda, Coop, Waitrose, Woolworths); to pledges to investigate the claims (Morrisons, M&S, Sainsbury, and Tesco, as well as Carrefour).

But not one retailer has yet to communicate that any internal investigation which verified Mighty Earth’s findings would lead to a termination of supplier contracts.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

If major supermarkets are serious about fulfilling their commitments, they must act urgently to have a positive impact by changing their purchasing practices.

It is time for the retailers to draw the line and enforce the August 2020 cut-off date for deforestation and land conversion. Supermarkets should demand that their suppliers establish fully transparent and publicly available soy monitoring and traceability systems for the Brazilian Cerrado, as well as in other ecosystems that supply animal feed, including Brazil’s Pantanal, the Bolivian Amazon Basin, Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest, and the Gran Chaco of Argentina and Paraguay.

Only by doing this will consumers feel that they can make truly informed and ethical choices on where – and what – to shop.

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