UK imported 1m tonnes of soya with deforestation risk in 2019

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More than 1m tonnes of soya used by UK livestock farmers to produce chicken and other food last year could be linked to deforestation, according to a new analysis.

Large areas of forest in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay are being cleared to produce soya, which is then exported to the UK to be used by farmers, mainly to feed chickens and dairy cows.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has surged to a 12-year high with an area seven times larger than Greater London destroyed over the past year, according to figures released this week.

A joint investigation by the Guardian, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ITV and Greenpeace Unearthed last week found that Tesco, Lidl, Asda, McDonald’s, Nando’s all source chickens from UK producers that have been fed on soya linked to thousands of forest fires and clearance in the Brazilian Cerrado, a globally important carbon sink and wildlife habitat.

Now new figures have shown that more than 40% of soya imports in 2019 – 1m tonnes in total – came without any sourcing requirements from either Argentina, Paraguay or Brazil.

The figures are based on data collected anonymously by the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) and published by the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya. It estimates that 37% of soya imports were considered at low risk of being linked to deforestation and 6% at a higher risk.

The remaining soya imported into the UK last year, according to AIC, was either certified as responsibly sourced (40%), or imported from Canada or the US with no deforestation risk (17%).

The poultry industry remains the biggest user of soya, with more than two-thirds of soya imported last year into the UK used by the sector, mostly to feed birds reared to produce chicken meat, according to the AIC data.

Despite the risk of deforestation, banning soya imports from Argentina, Brazil or Paraguay would be a mistake, said James McCulloch from the AIC.

“If you’re a Brazilian soya producer and are told that there is money to be made in this [deforestation-free] standard, but hearing that the UK is going to leave Brazil alone because it’s too risky, it sends the wrong demand signal. We need to keep the supply chain engaged,” he said.

Combine harvesters crop soybeans in Campo Novo do Parecis, about 400km northwest of the city of Cuiaba, in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said the added cost of using soya certified as deforestation-free was a barrier.

“BPC members fully support and participate in initiatives for the responsible production of soy. Soy remains one of the best sources of nutrition for our birds and we are working hard with our supply chains and customers to manage the cost and availability of feed while improving its sustainability,” said Richard Griffiths, BPC chief executive.

A spokesperson for Red Tractor, the UK’s largest farm assurance scheme covering 46,000 British farms, cautioned against banning soya that could be linked to deforestation.

“It’s certainly possible that in the future Red Tractor could require members to source more responsibly-sourced soya by making it a requirement of our farm assurance standards,” the spokesman said. “However, we first need to understand the potential impact of this on the supply chain, particularly in terms of cost to the producer, and also how we can effectively audit responsible sourcing.”

Fires in the Parana Delta, in Argentina, seen from a cargo ship.

Higher welfare certification schemes, such as the ethical food label RSPCA Assured, have also appeared reluctant to rush to ban the use of soya by farmers, out of fears it could lead them to quit schemes.

“This could mean many farm animals no longer benefiting from the RSPCA’s higher welfare standards, and being farmed in lower conditions,” a spokesperson for RSPCA Assured said. “It is our aim in future for all RSPCA Assured farmers to source soy from more sustainable certified growers. And, we are continuing to investigate and work with other like-minded organisations to find viable solutions as soon as possible.”

The connection between soya used for animal feed and deforestation has been known for a long time, but attention has been growing. Retailers and food service outlets, including all those mentioned in the Guardian investigation, have been initiating policies to move their supply chains over to more sustainable sources of soya, or eliminating its use altogether.

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