Slash and burn rainforest

The UK’s appetite for corned beef is driving the illegal clearance of hundreds of thousands of hectares of tropical forest a year, according to a new report from European NGO Fern.

The report “Stolen Goods: the EU’s complicity in illegal tropical deforestation,” analysed the level of illegal deforestation stemming from European consumption of key agricultural commodities.

It found that as a whole, the EU imports just under a quarter of global agricultural commodities from areas of illegal deforestation, including 25% of all soy, 18% of all palm oil, 15% of all beef and 31% of all leather.

The UK was identified as one of the ‘Big 5’ importers of these commodities, and a ‘particularly important’ destination for beef from illegal deforestation.

According to the report, the UK imported illegal beef worth an estimated €113,056,533 in 2012, accounting for 115,000 hectares of unsanctioned deforestation – the highest of any European country.

Report author Sam Lawson said the UK’s impact was disproportionately high given its per capita beef consumption because it imported a lot of beef from Brazil, where most of the illegal deforestation takes place.

“The biggest issue with deforestation and cattle in Brazil relates to the Brazilian Amazon, where ranchers are clearing very large areas of Amazon rainforest,” he said.

“The entire ranch is often completely illegal because their land rights were fraudulently obtained, and even if the land was legal, they tend to clear a lot more forest than they are legally allowed to, or they clear parts they are not allowed to. There are often multiple levels of illegality involved.”

According to beef levy body Eblex, the UK imports 40% of its processed beef (tinned, prepared or cooked) from Brazil, the majority of which is likely to be corned beef for retail shelves.

Although previous reports have detailed the damage done by deforestation, the Fern report is the first to calculate how much of the clearance is illegal. Lawson said this was important because of the economic and social impacts of illegal deforestation, which add to the environmental issues.

“Illegal deforestation is driving corruption and leading to lost revenues, violence and human rights abuses. Those seeking to halt the illegal deforestation have been threatened, attacked or even killed,” he said.

Fern has called on the EU to ‘urgently’ develop an action plan to tackle deforestation, with additional trade regulation and procurement policies imposed to better govern the import of forest-risk commodities.

Forests and climate campaigner Hannah Mowat said efforts made to clean up the supply chain through voluntary zero deforestation pledges and commitments were ‘welcome but ineffective in the face of such blatant illegality.

“Our recommendations point towards the need for government regulation rather than industry best practices because of the illegal nature of it,” she said.

“Ultimately, this is something that producer countries need to resolve, but as long as we have open markets for illegal products, we are fuelling the illegality, helping regulators in developing countries turn a blind eye where it suits them.”