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Leon Kaye headshot

The Four Commodities Driving Global Deforestation

By Leon Kaye

Depending on the sources cited, 10 to 15 crops comprise the majority of food and consumer products consumed worldwide. And the methods used to raise many of these foods have created global supply chains that are not sustainable in the long run, from their effects on water supplies to their impacts on labor and land rights.

Now, the nonprofit science advocacy organization, the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS), suggests that four commodities alone are responsible for the majority of deforestation worldwide. They also happen to be commodities backed by powerful business interests.

These big four, according to UCS, are beef, soybeans, palm oil and, not surprisingly, wood products. And the ongoing deforestation in South America and Southeast Asia is responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation worldwide. In fact, Indonesia and Brazil are the top two countries for tropical deforestation; 44.7 percent of deforestation in plantations in Indonesia was caused by just four industries, with wood products and oil palm being the top two. Mining, however, was responsible for about 2.1 percent of deforestation in the Southeast Asian nation, an order of magnitude smaller than oil palm or wood products.

What's more surprising is that popular crops often cited as causing deforestation — such as cocoa, sugar and coffee — are relatively minor offenders compared to the aforementioned products. Pasture was responsible for about 71 percent of deforestation in South America between 1990 and 2005. By contrast, another commonly-cited cause of deforestation, mining, was found to be linked to only 0.20 percent of total deforestation.

One common trend that these four major commodities have in common is that, while there are organizations supposedly committed to reducing these products’ environmental and social impacts, their efforts are sputtering at best.

Soy is one example. Organizations including WWF have launched roundtables and frameworks to tackle the problems related to global soy production, but the shift in global food demands calls for more forceful action. Other campaigns, such as the so-called National Sustainable Soybean Initiative, are more of a front for Big Ag. And as UCS mentions, oft-maligned tofu and soy milk are hardly the catalyst behind soy’s huge environmental impact. The vast majority, as much as 75 percent, of farmed soy becomes animal feed (even for farmed fish), and about 20 percent is turned into biofuels.

Soy production has surged the past two decades, as nations such as Brazil and Argentina seized economic opportunities in this coveted crop, while regions, including Brazil’s tropical savannah cerrado, witnessed much of their land bulldozed into farmland for soy. One campaign led by Greenpeace helped stanch the loss of land, but soy continues to be a huge contributor to deforestation.

Deforestation in the beef supply chain

Walk into a supermarket in South America, and chances are plenty of beef in the meat case comes from Paraguay — even though Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay all produce their fair share of this popular meat. Paraguay’s relatively new meat industry has sparked destruction of much of its thorny, hot Gran Chaco forest. According to UCS, beef differs from most foods in that what is produced locally is often also eat locally. But the emergence of cheap Paraguayan beef, which benefits politically-connected ranchers but otherwise few Paraguayans economically, is a large part of why deforestation stemming from beef is concentrated in Latin America.

Industry efforts such as the Sustainable Beef Roundable have been more focused on purported fact-finding than taking action: When Triple Pundit last contacted this organization for a follow-up article, its representatives went silent.

The explosion of palm oil (and deforestation)

As the health risks from hydrogenated oils became known, up surged global production of palm oil. The result has been demolished forests throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producers.

The work of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was often greeted by skepticism, but recently the RSPO seems to have suspended more members than it has accepted.

UCS highlighted the fact that the loss of forests in tropical regions, many of them rich in carbon, has been particularly destructive. The draining and burning of carbon-rich peatlands have further added to the destruction where palm oil is grown. More companies have committed to purchasing responsibly-sourced palm oil, but whether this adoption can occur fast enough is an open question.

Demand for wood products on the rise

Finally, wood products, including pulp and paper, are another significant contributor to global deforestation. Timber extracted from natural forests accounts for a third of wood products worldwide, with managed forests presenting their own environmental challenges.

Despite the move worldwide to go “paperless,” the reality is that the demand for pulp and paper will continue to increase in the coming decades. And with more of that demand coming from developing countries where regulations are more lax, expect the timber industry’s contribution to global deforestation to remain at what UCS says is about 10 percent of the world’s loss of forests annually.

The bottom line

“We know that the four major drivers of tropical deforestation are beef, soy, palm oil and wood products," Lael Goodman, a policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in an emailed statement to TriplePundit. "These four commodities are responsible for more tropical deforestation than production of sugar, cacao, coffee and other commodities. Deforestation causes about 10 percent of the total global release of heat-trapping climate pollution. That’s the same as the annual tailpipe pollution from about 600 million cars,”

So, what is society to do? UCS researchers claim that regulatory enforcement is only part of the story. But getting companies to make supply chain commitments that are free from causing deforestation is the most important tactic to reduce the environmental degradation and human rights violations that result from the demand for some of the world’s most valuable raw materials.

Image credit: Christoph Diewald/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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