Can we take deforestation off the grocery store shelves?

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CC BY 2.0 Robert Couse-Baker

One of the major announcements made at yesterday’s UN Climate Summit was the New York Declaration of Forests, a public-private partnership with the ambitious goals of ending deforestation by 2030 and restoring 150 million hectares of degraded forests by 2020.

These are worthy goals, as it becomes increasingly clear that stopping deforestation is a key measure to fighting climate change. There are many other benefits to protecting forests, such as safeguarding biodiversity and preserving the traditional cultures of indigenous peoples.

The declaration is a significant step in the right direction, with some of the world’s biggest industrial users of tropical commodities committing their support.

But does the agreement go far enough to reach the goal of zero deforestation by 2030? It’s useful to compare the measures against the recommendations made by Forest Trends, a non-profit committed to forest conservation, just a few weeks ahead of the UN Climate Summit.

The New York Declaration on Forests includes a number of the recommended measures. Perhaps most importantly, it places emphasis on empowering forest communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, who are extremely effective at protecting the tropical forests they call home.

“What I’m seeing here at the summit is governments and companies coming forward with commitments that are consistent with what indigenous people stand for, what they need and what they want,” said Charles McNeill, a senior policy advisor for the United Nations Development Program. The New York Declaration on Forests also pledges support for producer countries to fight deforestation.

We also see in the declaration a commitment by multinational corporations to remove products associated with deforestation from their commodity chain by 2020. The list includes Nestle, Walmart, McDonalds, Kellogg’s, General Mills and Cargill. Yet, if Unilever can promise forest-free products by next year, one has to wonder, why can’t the others? According to the World Wildlife Fund, we’re losing eight football fields of forest every 10 seconds.

This leads me to a Forest Trends recommendation that’s notably absent from the New York Declaration of Forests: regulatory efforts by consumer countries. Or in other words, efforts to reduce the market for products associated with forest loss.

The Forest Trends report finds that nearly half (49 percent) of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was due to illegal conversion for commercial agriculture, most of which is destined for export.

“The problem is that the efforts by the tropical forest countries to prevent deforestation for these commodities are being undermined by the fact that the importing countries are basically undiscerning,” Sam Lawson, the lead author of the Forest Trends report, told TreeHugger. “What those consumer country governments could do is pass legislation which makes it an offense to import or sell these products if they were produced on land that was illegally cleared of forest.”

Basically, consumer countries could treat deforestation like the crime it is.

There’s actually some precedent for such a law in both Europe and the United States. Penny Davies, the Program Officer of Sustainable Development and Climate Change at The Ford Foundation, who previously worked for the U.K. government, points to a European Union law passed in 2010. The law makes it a crime to import or source any timber, wood or pulp product which has been harvested illegally. In the U.S., the Lacey Act similarly prohibits the sale or import of illegally logged wood.

“If something is illegal, why would you import it?” said Davies. She said that consuming countries share the responsibility, much as consumers of illegal drugs share the responsibility of their production.

However with the complexity of these international commodities, not everyone thinks demand-side regulation will help. Chris Wille, a consultant to Rainforest Alliance, doesn’t think that tighter regulation would help prevent deforestation. “Government commitments, such as those made by the several countries in Europe to ‘sustainable and certified’ palm oil are welcome stimuli, but regulations don’t often help,” he said.

If regulations were put in place, it’s likely that black markets would persist. After all, bans on ivory and cocaine haven’t stopped poachers or drug producers. However, we can’t accidentally buy these products at the grocery store. Although third-party certifications like the Rainforest Alliance seal can help consumers identify products that are deforestation-free, it’s often nearly impossible for shoppers to tell if other items contain pulp or palm oil from illegally cleared areas. Sam Lawson of Forest Trends said that in an ideal world consumer goods associated with illegal deforestation wouldn’t be on supermarket shelves in the first place.

Yet in the absence of regulations, consumers and multinational companies will have to play a major role in fighting deforestation. “I think there’s a role for everyone to play,” said Nicole Pasricha, a manager of sustainable value chains at Rainforest Alliance. “I don’t think that there’s ever going to be a point where there’s an actor in the system that doesn’t need to do anything anymore.”

Can we take deforestation off the grocery store shelves?
Ending forest loss means a major change in how we treat tropical foods and goods.

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