Food Companies Push UK Government for Tighter Deforestation Rules

New regulations would force companies to disclose product origins.

illegally harvested lumber in Indonesia
Lumber harvested illegally from a rainforest preserve awaits pickup in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images 

The United Kingdom is currently weighing a new law that would tighten regulations surrounding the import of tropical commodities and, hopefully, slow global deforestation. This law would make it illegal for UK-based companies of a certain size to use products that have failed to comply with local laws to protect natural areas. 

It means that companies would have to be transparent about their supply chains and able to prove that commodities such as cocoa, coffee, lumber, leather, soy, and rubber had complied with local regulations. This in turn would incentivize local suppliers to be more careful with their own harvesting and sourcing because lack of care could ruin their export businesses.

Deforestation is a huge problem worldwide that's linked to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The BBC reports that "the felling of trees and the clearing of land, usually for agriculture, is estimated to be responsible for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions." Forests are often cleared in tropical regions to make way for animal agriculture (for cattle grazing, leather production, or to grow soy as feed), vast palm oil and rubber plantations, and cacao farms. 

Short-term financial gain is unfortunately prioritized over the preservation of ancient, old-growth forests that play a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide, emitting oxygen, purifying air, regulating temperature, promoting rainfall, fighting flooding, providing habitat for animals, and much more. Once clearcut, these forests cannot be replaced.

So the UK's move is a good step in the right direction, one that has even been called a "world-leading" law. The only problem is, it applies only to large multinational companies, which means that smaller-scale companies could continue to import items from questionable sources. In response to this loophole, 21 major food companies have written an open letter to the UK's Department for Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs (Defra), asking it to tighten regulations even further. The companies include McDonald's, Nestle, Mondelez, Unilever, and the UK's seven biggest supermarkets, among others.

They write that the proposed regulations are not strong enough to halt deforestation in any kind of meaningful way, and that all organizations should be forced to disclose sourcing information "if they have a historically large forest footprint, regardless of their size in terms of turnover or profits." They raise the issue of inconsistent standards in countries of origin:

"Many nations and regions facing deforestation have weak domestic and international legislation. As such, only mandating companies to avoid deforestation classed as ‘illegal’ gives them a pass to continue destroying and degrading forests where domestic legislation permits them to do so." (via edie)

Rather than abandon these regions completely, however, the companies suggest that they be supported to improve supply chains, promote reforestation work, and preserve remaining habitats.

It's positive news from an industry that's notorious for not caring about the origin of products; and it shows that public frustration over deforestation and the burning Amazon rainforest is being heard. The WWF recently reported that 67% of British consumers want the government to do more to tackle this issue, and 81% want more transparency about items imported into the UK. 

It remains to be seen how this open letter, submitted on the last day of the government's six-week consultation period, affects the regulation's final draft.