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Spilling the (soya)beans

Major investigation links deforestation to supermarket supply chains
Jarvis Smith - My Green Pod
Soybean plantation in the Cerrado

Main image: © Antonio Stickel / Greenpeace

Chicken sold in Britain’s supermarkets and fast food outlets is being fattened on soya linked to deforestation and fires across a vital region of tropical woodland in Brazil, an investigation by Greenpeace Unearthed and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed.

Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Nando’s and McDonald’s are among the high street names that sell chicken produced in the UK by a subsidiary of the agribusiness giant Cargill – America’s second-biggest private company and one of the world’s biggest exporters of Brazilian soya.

Soya supplier fires

Exclusive figures obtained from leading research consultancy Aidenvironment reveal that on land used or owned by nine of Cargill’s soya suppliers in the Cerrado, 800km2 of deforestation (an area larger than New York City) and more than 12,000 fires had been recorded since 2015.

In August, Greenpeace tracked a shipment of 66,000 tonnes of soya beans from Brazil’s Cotegipe port into Cargill’s soya plant at Liverpool docks, which shipping data confirmed was from the Cerrado’s Matopiba region, including the heavily deforested municipality of Formosa do Rio Preto.

Exclusive footage shows huge fires burning on Cargill supplier SLC Agrícola’s Fazenda Parceiro farm in the area just last month. 

The route to supermarkets

Cargill runs its UK chicken operations under the banner Avara, a joint enterprise with the British producer Faccenda.

The investigation tracked Cargill’s soya beans from its crushing plant in Liverpool to its poultry feed mills in Hereford and Banbury, then on to Avara’s contracted chicken farms.

Identifying a typical case, the investigation established that the Hereford mill supplies a nearby farm that sends birds to an Avara-run abattoir and then on to McDonald’s.

Avara also supplies chicken to Asda, Lidl and Nando’s, and is the largest fresh chicken supplier to Tesco. 

Tracking the destruction all the way to supermarket shelves, a handful of Greenpeace volunteers visited Tesco stores in Stroud and Trowbridge during October and very quickly found whole chickens on sale with factory codes identifying Avara’s abattoir and meatpacking plant stamped on them. 

The Cerrado

Though less well known than the Amazon rainforest to its north, the Cerrado is an enormous natural biome, covering 2 million km2 of land.

Its trees, shrubs and plains are estimated to store the equivalent of 13.7bn tonnes of carbon dioxide – more than China’s annual emissions – and it is a crucial part of South America’s water system, home to many Indigenous communities and a major habitat for wildlife.

5% of the world’s plant and animal species live in the Cerrado, 4,800 of which are found nowhere else on the planet.

Examples include the jaguar, tapir, maned wolf, armadillo and giant anteater (the latter highlighted by David Attenborough in the BBC’s recent documentary Extinction: The Facts).

‘The government is greenwashing’

The findings come as the British government is proposing new legislation that would make it illegal for ‘large’ UK companies to import foodstuffs linked with any illegal environmental destruction in the source country.

However, in the Cerrado, local laws permit significant deforestation. 

The findings also highlight how even homegrown livestock has a global environmental impact.

The UK slaughters a billion birds – the equivalent of 15 per person – every year and according to one estimate, chickens account for around 60% of the UK’s imported soya consumption.

‘Industrial meat is the biggest driver of deforestation globally and reducing demand for industrial meat is the only way retailers will actually achieve deforestation-free supply chains. Tesco, McDonald’s and others may claim they’re doing all they can to tackle the problem but unless they replace at least half of the meat and dairy they sell with plant-based alternatives, we will see forests trashed and crucial habitats burn year after year. 

‘The government’s new legislation is a dangerous fig leaf to business as usual. The world is in crisis but the government is greenwashing. Stopping deforestation and reducing factory farming have been identified as crucial ways to protect ourselves from future pandemics. Companies have a moral obligation to stop selling us products that wreak havoc on forests, on unique wildlife, on Indigenous Peoples and on the health of our planet.’

Head of forests at Greenpeace UK

Soya in supply chains

Ten years ago Cargill set itself a deadline of 2020 to eliminate deforestation in its supply chains of key commodities such as soya, but admitted last year it would not be met.

It has pushed back its deadline to 2030 instead and last year publicly opposed a soya moratorium in the Cerrado. 

McDonald’s, Asda, Lidl and Nando’s do not publicly say where the soya in their supply chains comes from, though Nando’s told the investigation team its soya is from Brazil and Paraguay.

Tesco states that some of the Cargill soya in its supply chain comes from the Cerrado but in 2019 it told Greenpeace it did not know the origin of most of the product it uses.

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