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Palm oil plantation in Malaysia

Food firms urge UK to adopt tougher rules to protect tropical forests

Image credit: Sinseeho/Dreamstime

Supermarkets, food manufacturers, and restaurant chains – under pressure from campaigners over their environmental impact – have urged the UK government to strengthen a plan to stop tropical forests from being cut down to grow cocoa, palm oil, and soy.

With the food industry under growing scrutiny for its contribution in driving deforestation in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, the UK government is drawing up legislation to force the sector to tighten oversight of its supply chains.

In an open letter, around 20 major companies - including the likes of Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s, food manufacturers Unilever, Nestle and Greencore Group, McDonald’s Corp and various livestock producers - wrote that the government's proposal is a “step forward” but that “it’s not currently envisioned to be enough to halt deforestation and we encourage the government to go further to address this issue.”

The UK’s move to introduce legal penalties for companies found to be complicit in deforestation aims to improve upon a range of voluntary, industry-led initiatives that have faced widespread criticism from environmental groups.

Meanwhile, companies have said they would prefer clear direction from governments that would create standard rules rather than navigating the existing maze of voluntary initiatives.

Under the proposed legislation, large companies would have to report on how they source tropical commodities and could also be banned from using products that are harvested illegally in their country of origin.

The supermarkets and food companies who signed the letter stressed that the proposed regulations have a loophole: farmers in developing countries can often clear forests to grow cash crops for export without breaking any laws.

Therefore, companies want the new rules to apply to all deforestation – not just in cases where the destruction is illegal. “The proposed legislation would continue to allow rampant deforestation in hotspots such as Indonesia and Brazil,” stressed Robin Willoughby, UK director of campaign group Mighty Earth.

Furthermore, companies are concerned that the legislation would not apply to smaller firms who may import considerable amounts of products, such as rubber, from sensitive forest regions.

Cyril Kormos, executive director of Wild Heritage, a non-profit organisation based in Berkeley, California, also said a more comprehensive overhaul of forest management rules globally would be needed to reverse the loss of old-growth forests. Such forests store carbon and form bastions which could help to slow climate change. “Deforestation pledges only go so far,” he said. “We need an equivalent focus on ending degradation of primary forests.”

In February this year, universities across the UK pledged to become more environmentally friendly, with measures ranging from beef and plastic bans to coaxing students into beekeeping on-site. The PA news agency investigation found that they also aimed to remove products containing palm oil. 

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