Major supermarkets, food suppliers, and investors once again urge Brazil’s government to withdraw proposed law they warn could exacerbate rainforest destruction
A group of major retailers, brands, suppliers, and investors representing swathes of the UK food supply chain have once again threatened to boycott Brazilian agricultural products unless its government ditches a controversial bill they warn could accelerate destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
In an open letter to Brazil’s government and lawmakers today, high street names including Asda, Aldi, the Co-op, Greggs, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, M&S, Waitrose, and Morrisons said it was “extremely concerning” the proposed law – which was previously withdrawn a year ago – was being put forward once again by President Bolsonaro’s administration.
The letter, which is also signed by the British Retail Consortium and Legal & General Investment Management, warns if the proposed legislation or similar measures that undermine Amazon rainforest protections become law then “we will have no choice but to reconsider our support and use of the Brazilian agricultural commodity supply chain”.
More than 40 leading companies had previously issued the same threat in May 2020 when the bill was first mooted by Brazil’s government, arguing it could lead to accelerated deforestation of Earth’s largest rainforest.
Supporters of the bill claimed it would help fast-track thousands of outstanding land claims and encourage land owners to comply with landownership regulation, including environmental laws, but international pressure saw the proposal withdrawn before being brought to a vote by lawmakers.
However, the Bolsonaro-backed measure is yet again being put forward “with potentially even greater threats to the Amazon than before”, which threaten to heap environmental and reputational risks onto food supply chains, today’s letter argues.
“The existing protections and land designations enshrined in Brazilian legislation have been instrumental in our organisations having trust that our products, services, investments and business relationships in Brazil are aligned with the commitments we hold as environmentally and socially responsible enterprises, and that our customers and stakeholders expect of us,” it states.
President Jair Bolsonaro recently spoke at last month’s Climate Leaders Summit hosted by the US, at which the controversial leader stated his commitment to eliminating illegal deforestation in the South American nation by 2030, while calling on foreign governments to deliver financial support to bolster the country’s forest protection measures. He also announced Brazil would aim to deliver net zero emissions by 2050, although provided scant details about how the new ambition could be met.
The comments marked a slight change in tone from Bolsonaro’s administration, which has faced fierce criticism worldwide for its perceived failure to protect the Amazon, which has seen rates of deforestation and major fires soar under his leadership, exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss.
However, in the wake of the high profile Summit Bolsonaro reportedly moved to slash Brazil’s environmental budget for 2021 by 24 per cent and has now moved to revive a Bill that would put public land in the Amazon that has been illegally occupied since 2014 up for sale, potentially allowing loggers and agricultural firms to buy up more areas of rainforest territory.
As such, today’s letter argues the measures set out in the bill “are counter to the narrative and rhetoric we have seen internationally from Brazil”. It also laments “extremely high levels of forest fires and deforestation in Brazil” over the past year, and the government’s “increasingly inadequate” targets and enforcement budgets to deliver on its stated goals.
Among other signatories to the letter are major livestock producer such as Pilgrim’s UK and Cranswick, as well as the Retail Soy Group, the Agricultural Industries Confederation and EdenTree Investment Management.
Co-op’s head of policy Cathryn Higgs said it was “imperative the proposed legislation isn’t given any airtime by the Brazilian government”. “We are joining forces with environmentally and socially responsible organisations to oppose the measures being put forward,” she said.
Should the bill become law and signatories to the letter follow through on their threatened boycott of Brazilian goods, it could potentially make a sizeable dent in the country’s exports, and would require a major shift in supply chains for UK firms, with Brazil one of the world’s major livestock and soy producers. For example, at present around eight per cent of UK beef imports are from Brazil, according to conservation group WWF.
The issue also places the spotlight on regulatory efforts to combat deforestation, with the UK government currently drawing up legislation that would outlaw companies from selling products using materials linked to illegal deforestation. However, conservation groups have warned such legislation does nothing to combat legal deforestation, which the Brazilian government’s proposed legislation would likely exacerbate.
The stand-off comes amid growing focus on the impact of food products on deforestation, with commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, paper, timber, and cocoa blamed for swathes of ongoing forest destruction worldwide. Many consumer facing firms had joined a pledge to end net deforestation by 2020, a target which has been missed by a wide margin: a recent study estimated primary rainforest destruction actually increased by 12 per cent between 2019 and 2020, with the tropics losing 12.2 million hectares of tree cover last year, in a major blow to climate and biodiversity efforts.
Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF UK, therefore welcomed the intervention of British retailers in pressuring Brazil’s government to ditch the bill. “We cannot fight the climate crisis without the Amazon, yet its future hangs in the balance as deforestation pushes it closer to the point of collapse,” he said. “If passed, this vote in the Brazilian Congress will fuel further destruction and place greater risk on the lives of the people and wildlife who call it home. As global efforts to protect the Amazon threaten to be undermined, it’s encouraging to see major businesses sounding the alarm.”
The worrying plight of the world’s tropical forests is arguably one of the most pressing battlegrounds in the climate and biodiversity fight, given their role as crucial carbon stores and major wildlife hubs. And with consumer concern over the impact of high street products growing, companies are beginning to take a far greater advocacy roles in rallying for more ambitious action against such crises. The threatened boycott of Brazilian produce could be the first of many such moves.