Recent analysis of the land owned or used by soya suppliers in the Cerrado since 2015 found 801 sq km of deforestation.

Revealed: UK supermarket and fast food chicken linked to deforestation in Brazil

Supermarkets and fast food outlets are selling chicken fed on imported soya linked to thousands of forest fires and at least 300 sq miles (800 sq km) of tree clearance in the Brazilian Cerrado, a joint cross-border investigation has revealed.

Tesco, Lidl, Asda, McDonald’s, Nando’s and other high street retailers all source chicken fed on soya supplied by trading behemoth Cargill, the US’s second largest private company. The combination of minimal protection for the Cerrado – a globally important carbon sink and wildlife habitat – with an opaque supply chain and confusing labelling systems, means that shoppers may be inadvertently contributing to its destruction.

The broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham said the revelations showed that consumers needed to be given more information about their food. “Most people would be incredulous when they think they’re buying a piece of chicken in Tesco’s which has been fed on a crop responsible for one of the largest wholesale tropical forest destructions in recent times,” he said.

“We’ve got to wake up to the fact that what we buy in UK supermarkets, the implications of that purchase can be far and wide and enormously damaging, and this is a prime example of that.”

The UK slaughters at least a billion chickens a year, equivalent to 15 birds for every person in the country. Many are fattened up on soya beans imported into the UK by Cargill, which buys from farmers in the Cerrado, a woody tropical savanna that covers an area equal in size to Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.

Analysis of shipping data shows that Cargill imported 1.5m tonnes of Brazilian soya to the UK in the six years to August 2020. Biome-level export figures, collated by the supply-chain watchdog Trase, indicate that nearly half of Cargill’s Brazilian exports to the UK are from the Cerrado.

Among the most recent shipments were 66,000 tonnes of soya beans that landed in Liverpool docks in August on a Cargill-leased bulk tanker, BBG Dream. This was the focus of a collaborative investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Greenpeace Unearthed, ITV News, and the Guardian.

The ship’s hold had been loaded in Cotegipe port terminal in Salvador, Brazil, with beans that had come from the Cerrado’s Matopiba region, including some from Formosa do Rio Preto, the Cerrado’s most heavily deforested community. As well as Cargill, the suppliers included Bunge (Brazil’s biggest soya exporter) and ADM (another leading US food producer).

After crossing the Atlantic, the entire shipment was unloaded into Cargill’s Seaforth soya crush plant in Liverpool, according to maritime and shipping records. The investigation tracked the way that grain crushed there is then trucked to mills in Hereford and Banbury, where it is mixed with wheat and other ingredients to produce livestock feed. From there, it is taken to chicken farms contracted to Avara.

Avara is a joint venture between Cargill and Faccenda Foods. It fattens up birds, which are slaughtered, processed and packaged for distribution to Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Nando’s, McDonald’s and other retailers. Avara thrives in relative obscurity. “You might not have heard of us but there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed our products,” the company’s website says.

So where, exactly, is this soya originating from? Avara’s supplier, Cargill, buys soya from many suppliers in the Cerrado, at least nine of which have been involved in recent land clearance. Analysis by the consultancy Aidenvironment of the land owned or used by these companies since 2015 found 801 sq km of deforestation – an area equivalent to 16 Manhattans. It also detected 12,397 recorded fires.

As recently as last month, drone footage taken in Formosa do Rio Preto showed huge fires burning on Fazenda Parceiro, a farm run by SLC Agrícola, which is a supplier to Cargill. Satellite data shows the fires burned 65 sq km of the farm. More than 210 sq km has been cleared on SLC Agrícola land over the past five years, according to the Aidenvironment analysis. Cargill said it broke no rules, nor their own policies, by sourcing from the farm in question and made clear it does not source from illegally deforested land. SLC Agrícola were approached for comment but declined.

Despite this destruction, produce from these areas can be labelled as legal and sustainable in Brazil. This highlights the shortcomings of an international trade system that relies on local standards, which are often influenced by farmers focused on short-term economic profit, rather than long-term global good, which would incorporate the value of water systems, carbon sinks and wildlife habitats.

The Brazilian government has steadily relaxed controls on deforestation – and sometimes tacitly encouraged it – over the past decade, most notably by the relaxation of the Forest Code in 2012.

This is particularly true in the Cerrado, Brazil’s second biggest biome, which is being sacrificed to boost exports, keep global food prices low and reduce the impact on its neighbour, the Amazon. Farmers can legally cut and burn a higher proportion of trees in this savannah compared with the internationally scrutinised Amazon.

Many biologists believe this policy is shortsighted. The trees, shrubs and soil of the Cerrado store the equivalent of 13.7bn tonnes of carbon dioxide – significantly more than China’s annual emissions. It is the origin of so many rivers it is known as “the birthplace of waters” and home to 1,600 species of birds, reptiles and mammals (including jaguars, armadillos and anteaters) and 10,000 types of plant, many not seen anywhere else in the world.

Scientists say it will be hard – if not impossible – to save Amazonia without conserving the Cerrado. But the latter has suffered double the deforestation even though it is half the size. Between 50% and 80% of the original biome has been replaced by cattle ranches and soya farms, making this the world’s most rapidly expanding agribusiness frontier and one of the fastest shrinking areas of nature.

Whether or not Brazil deems soya from this area legal, many consumers do not want to buy products associated with deforestation.

The UK imports 700,000 tonnes of raw soya beans each year, many from the Cerrado, It also buys almost three times this quantity of processed soya feed, the majority from Argentina. The environmental impact varies hugely from country to country. But shoppers have little way of knowing whether their chicken breast or burger contributed to the problem of the Cerrado because labels provide insufficient information about origins, crops from sustainable and deforested sources can be mixed, and many firms rely on offsets.

The companies involved say they are working to lower the environmental impact of their offerings, but progress varies.

McDonald’s and Nando’s cover the volumes of soya they uses for chicken feed with sustainability “certifications”, which includes purchasing “credits” – similar to carbon offsetting. The credits support farmers producing sustainably but the actual soya in the supply chain is not necessarily from these producers and can come from deforesting farms.

McDonald’s said it aimed to eliminate deforestation from its global supply chains by 2030. A spokesman said: “We’re proud of the progress we’ve made, yet recognise there is more to do, and will continue to work hard to progress toward our goals.”

Nando’s did not provide a target date to completely phase out deforestation from its supply chain, but it said it was looking at alternatives to soya. “We recognise that there is more work to do which is why we are also investing in research looking at more sustainable feed alternatives and look forward to being able to share the results as soon as possible.”

Asda and Lidl said they were working towards buying only “physically certified” sustainable soya by 2025, but this can mean different things. Asda takes it to mean “segregated” deforestation-free soya – meaning the actual product in its supply chain must be sustainable for it to meet its goal – but Lidl clarified it was including a scheme where sustainable grain can be mixed in with product from deforesting farms. Lidl said it is currently the largest buyer of credits to offset its soya footprint.

Tesco said that it has set itself an “industry-leading” target for its soya to come from verified deforestation-free “areas” by 2025. “Setting fires to clear land for crops must stop,” a spokesperson said. “We’ve played a leading role in convening industry and government to protect the Cerrado, including committing £10m to protect the region’s biodiversity. We need our suppliers, industry, NGOs and governments to work with us to end deforestation and protect our natural environment.”

Avara, Cargill’s joint venture, said it was at the forefront of the UK’s soya purchasers, covering all its soya purchases with certification, and working to achieve much higher transparency in the supply chain. “We welcome the UK government’s proposed legislation aimed at illegal deforestation as this is aligned with these objectives and an important first step.” Avara is part of the Statement of Support for the Cerrado Manifesto and sits on the steering group of this initiative.

McDonald’s, Nando’s and the three supermarkets named have publicly expressed their support for a new agreement, similar to the moratorium in the Amazon, to stop deforestation for soya in the Cerrado, but opposition in Brazil has meant nothing has materialised.

Cargill – one of the most important players in the supply chain – has publicly said it opposes a Cerrado moratorium. At the time, it announced $30m (£22.6m) in funding efforts to address deforestation but did not specify where this would be spent. The Guardian asked Cargill why it had rejected a moratorium, but the company did not comment on this.

It expressed its commitment to a deforestation-free supply chain, however, and to supporting farmers who are working sustainably. It said: “Cargill estimates that 95.68% of our soya volumes in Brazil for the 2018-19 crop year were deforestation- and conversion-free.” The company is continuing to expand its certification programme in Brazil and Paraguay, but put the emphasis on the Brazilian legal system. “Cargill – along with our industry, farmers, local governments and customers – has accountability for transforming the food supply chain, and we are engaging with stakeholders every day to make progress,” it said. “Deforestation in that biome is, in most cases, a criminal act by Brazilian law. It must be treated that way.”

The investigation shows, however, that merely treating it as a Brazilian matter is not enough.

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