Richard Walker

Why the Amazon matters – and what corporate activism hopes to achieve

We’ve only got the one planet to support us, and we all have a duty to look after it. It’s blindingly obvious that doing the wrong thing, anywhere in the world, can have adverse consequences for humanity globally. And it’s particularly true when we face a very real threat to one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks, climate regulators and reservoirs of biodiversity.

The Amazon rainforest ticks all those critical boxes. It stores 10% of the world’s carbon and is the habitat of 10% of its biodiversity, including more than 40,000 species of plants. Brazil, which has sovereignty over 61% of the forest, is allowing deforestation to progress at an alarming and accelerating pace, with some 20% of the forest in its territory already converted to other uses: agriculture, mineral extraction or urbanisation.

If you think 20% doesn’t sound too bad, bear in mind that Brazilian and other scientists consider 25% to be the critical ‘tipping point’ at which the Amazon rainforest will begin to lose its ability to recycle moisture from the Atlantic and will begin a process of degradation that will lead to the loss of most of its carbon stocks and biodiversity. The forest will cease to be a carbon sink and become a net carbon emitter. If this happens, the world will have absolutely no chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as the Paris Agreement aims to achieve.

That’s why the fate of the Amazon is of crucial importance to all of us, and that’s why Iceland and other leading UK retailers this week signed a joint letter to members of the Brazilian Congress urging them to reject proposed legislation by the Bolsonaro government that will grant amnesty to illegal land grabbers, allow the construction of major projects in well conserved areas, open indigenous areas to exploitation and overall expose many tens of millions of fresh hectares to deforestation.

Last year alone an area of virgin rainforest six times the size of London was burned down. If this legislative package is approved, that destruction is guaranteed to accelerate dramatically, and the global conservation charity WWF considers that ‘it will be impossible to control deforestation and violence against indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the Amazon in the next decade.’

Amazon Rainforest

What’s this got to do with UK retailers, and indeed with you? Well, climate change is a clear danger to all of us, but underlying the threat to the Amazon is the unsustainable production of soy, for which there is ever-increasing demand as the feedstock for meat and dairy products. Since we know that money talks – a similar set of proposals was withdrawn a year ago after threats to stop sourcing agricultural products from Brazil – we hope that legislators will be deterred by the very real prospect of major international buyers reviewing their supply chains if this legislation goes ahead.

Soy is relevant to all of us who eat meat and dairy products, because 90% of the crop imported to Europe goes to feed animals, and the average person in the UK consumes 61kg of animal protein every year. That is because every 100g of chicken we eat requires 109kg of soy to produce it – and every individual egg requires 35g in chicken feed. The UK imports over three million tonnes of soy every year and as demand grows, more and more pressure is placed on fragile ecosystems. Iceland’s own soy footprint, including the animal feed used by our suppliers, is 20,250 tonnes per year, which is small compared with the major supermarkets.

As you would expect, there is no simple solution to the challenge posed by unsustainable soy. Commodity traders do not currently segregate their products, so there is no easy way of simply cutting Brazil out of the supply chain until the industry accepts the need to rethink its position on protecting the Amazon. The production of guaranteed ‘sustainable soy’ is in its very early stages and not a practical solution for Iceland.

We continue to investigate alternatives to soy, including working with a key supplier towards a soy-free British chicken, while remaining conscious as ever that we have many customers who rely on us to deliver protein to feed their families as cheaply as possible.

In the long run it is clearly right to argue that we all need to eat less, but better, meat and dairy; but doing that is much, much simpler for those who can easily afford to make the switch.

One really encouraging aspect of the joint letter to Brazil, and the media interest and coverage it has sparked this week, is the growing number of businesses recognising the value of corporate activism. Among the few positives of Covid-19 is the way it has helped to break down barriers and encourage British food retailers and manufacturers to work together to feed the nation; we are also working with our competitors on issues such as plastic reduction, and in the task force to combat child food poverty.

All these prove how powerful the UK’s food providers can be when we work together as a collective, and we need to make good use of this leverage to help tackle the climate and environmental crises we all face together.

However, while cross-industry collaboration can get us a long way, we must also recognise that there are limits to what business can achieve on its own, without Government involvement and support. So I hope Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are paying close attention to the industry’s voices on the Amazon and soy, and that commitments to zero deforestation and improved traceability will be a key feature of Britain’s post-Brexit trade deals with Brazil and other countries not just in South America but around the world.

The world’s rainforests are the lungs of the planet and contain the crown jewels of its biodiversity. Nothing is more important to the future of humanity than ensuring that they are properly protected.

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