A team of researchers said more companies should implement zero-deforestation policies to significantly reduce deforestation and protect various ecosystems.

Corporate commitments not to buy soy produced on land deforested after 2006 only reduced deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 1.6% between 2006 and 2015. This equates to a protected area of ​​2,300 km2 in the Amazon rainforest.

The findings, made by tracking traders’ soybean supplies back to their source, were published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The work was a collaborative project involving researchers from the University of Cambridge, Boston University, ETH Zurich and New York University.

The demand for soy and its impact on ecosystems

The researchers also found that in the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savannah, zero-deforestation commitments have not been effectively implemented – leaving more than 50% of forests suitable for soybeans and their biodiversity unprotected.

Brazil has the largest remaining rainforest on the planet, but it is rapidly being cleared for cattle ranching and crops such as soybeans. Soybean demand is increasing worldwide, estimated at 4,800 km2 the rainforests that are cut down every year to grow soybeans.

Most soybeans are consumed indirectly by humans because they are widely used as feed for factory-farmed chickens, pigs, fish, and cattle. What’s more, it accounts for around 27% of the world’s vegetable oil production, and as a complete source of protein, it often forms a key part of vegetarian and vegan diets.

Companies don’t follow through on their promises to protect forests

By 2021, at least 94 companies have adopted zero deforestation policies, pledging to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. However, the study revealed that many of these commitments are not implemented in practice.

Researchers identify small and medium-sized food companies as key culprits. “Pledges to zero deforestation are a great first step, but they need to be delivered to have an effect on forests – and right now it’s mainly the bigger companies that have the resources to do that,” said Professor Rachel Garrett, Moran Professor of Conservation and development at the University of Cambridge’s Conservation Research Institute and senior co-author of the report.

She added: “If soy traders actually meet their global commitments to deforestation-free production, Brazil’s current deforestation rates could be reduced by around 40%.”

Extending zero-deforestation policies beyond soybeans

Deforestation is the second largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuel use. It also causes the loss of diverse animal and plant life, threatens the livelihoods of local groups, and increases inequality and conflict.

The researchers say supply chains for other food products, including cattle, oil palm and cocoa, are more complex than soy, making them even more difficult to monitor.

Garrett stated, “If supply chain policies are to contribute to the task of tackling deforestation in Brazil, it is critical to extend zero-deforestation supply chain policies beyond soybeans.”

The “Soybean Moratorium” was the first voluntary zero-deforestation policy in the tropics. By signing it, the companies agreed not to buy soy produced on land deforested after 2006. However, although the commitment was fulfilled in the Brazilian Amazon, most Brazilian soy is produced in the Cerrado – which is rich in biodiversity.

The researchers said their findings show that private sector efforts are not enough to halve deforestation and that supportive political leadership is vital to conservation efforts.

“Supply chain management should not be a substitute for state-led forest policies, which are critical to ensure monitoring and implementation of zero deforestation, have better potential to cover different crops, land users and regions Garrett concluded.

In 2021 COP26 Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Usecommitted to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. It was signed by over 100 countries and represented 85% of the world’s forests.

Zero-deforestation policies have had little impact on Amazon forest clearance