A McDonald’s Policy Is Saving More Rainforests Than the Brazilian Government

A new study shows that the rate of deforestation in Brazil has fallen since the fast-food giant and other companies stopped sourcing soy from farms that grow crops on logged land.

A soy plantation in the Amazon rainforest near Santarém. (Photo: Ricardo Beliel/Getty Images)

Jan 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Here’s another reason why avoiding chicken nuggets is good not only for your health but for the planet: A new study shows that since McDonald’s and other companies stopped buying birds fed with soy grown in the Amazon in 2006, the percentage of Brazilian rainforest logged to raise the crop has plummeted.

“Before the moratorium, 30 percent of new soy came from deforestation, but after the moratorium, only about 1 percent of the new soy expansion came at the expense of forests,” said Holly Gibbs, an environmental studies and geography professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the study’s lead author.

The so-called soy moratorium is up for renewal in 2016, and Gibbs said the agreement is essential to keeping soy cultivation from destroying the rainforest. Brazil contains 60 percent of the Amazon, which is home to 10 percent of the world’s mammals, 15 percent of all plant species, and 220,000 indigenous people from 180 tribes. The Amazon also plays a crucial role in slowing climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Brazil is the second-largest producer of soy, behind the United States, and exports much of it to Europe and China. To feed this demand, an area the size of Vermont has been planted with soy in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, leading to widespread deforestation. The bulk of the soy grown worldwide goes to feed livestock—chickens, turkeys, and cattle—which eventually finds its way to dinner tables around the world.

After Greenpeace published a report in 2006 exposing the high rate of deforestation from soy farming, McDonald’s agreed to stop buying chicken linked to the land clearing. That put pressure on the soy traders—agricultural commodity giants such as Cargill, Bunge, and Archer Daniels Midland—to change where they bought soy and to stop financing new soy plantations in the rainforest.

“Very quickly, within days, unlike government policies which take years to implement, most of the soy industry and government agencies agreed to sign what’s known as the soy moratorium,” said Gibbs. “This was a landmark moment.”

In the study, published in the journal Science, Gibbs’ team analyzed maps of the Amazon rainforest and existing soy farms and tracked areas where new soy was planted and new deforestation had occurred. Gibbs wanted to understand how effective the moratorium has been and whether Brazil’s forest code alone could stop deforestation.

She found it could not.

“The Brazilian Amazon covers an area six times the size of Texas, and it’s very hard for them to enforce the code,” Gibbs said. “We found that the farmers who seemed to be following the Soy Moratorium were actually violating forest code—about 600 soy farmers were clearing forests but not planting soy.”

“But soy is their most profitable crop, so if they could, they would plant soy in the cleared land,” she added, which is why continuing the moratorium is important.

“Soy can be expanded 600 percent on land that was deforested long ago, so they’re not limiting production by enforcing the moratorium,” Gibbs said. “Instead, soy traders could encourage farmers to plant on land that has already been cleared.”

Romulo Batista, forests campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil, concurs.

“Brazilian law allows up to 20 percent of deforestation on farmland, but this is unnecessary,” he said. “There are several scientific studies showing that Brazil does not need to deforest to double agriculture production.”

Companies like McDonald’s are an integral part of the soy moratorium, and the fast-food giant leads a European alliance of soy consumer companies. Without insistence on deforestation-free soy, Batista said the soy traders association would have let the ban expire and would have complied only with the minimum required by Brazilian law.