Agriculture Hasn’t Made Much Progress on Its Promise to End Deforestation

A new report shows that more companies are making commitments to curb clear-cutting, but there isn’t much follow-through.
Workers harvest palm fruit at a palm oil plantation in Aceh Jaya, Indonesia. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Lots of talk but little concrete action—that seems to be the takeaway from a report published this week examining the progress made in tackling the global agriculture industry’s devastating effect on the world’s forests. In short, farming is making forests disappear.

An average of more than 32 million acres of forest continues to be lost each year, according to the United Nations. Whether trees are cleared to produce palm oil, which goes into everything from ice cream to margarine, or to raise the feed to satisfy a growing global demand for beef, agriculture is the biggest driver of that destruction. Four major commodities alone—palm oil, wood, cattle, and soy—account for 40 percent of deforestation.

In 2014, as part of a U.N. climate summit in New York, a group comprising national and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, indigenous groups, and more than 50 large multinational corporations signed on to the New York Declaration on Forests. The (non–legally binding) plan set out the ambitious goal of cutting forest loss in half by 2020 and ending it altogether by 2030.

That the plan emerged from a climate summit points to a critical—yet often overlooked—battlefront in the fight against global warming. Yes, forests are important in their own right. They provide habitat for upwards of 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial species and primary sustenance for more than 1.6 billion people. But forests also store massive amounts of carbon—and they release massive amounts of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere when they’re destroyed, presenting a sort of climate-change double whammy.

If we could meet the goal of stopping deforestation altogether, we’d cut between 4.5 billion and 8.8 billion tons of carbon pollution each year, the U.N. estimates—as much as all the current emissions from the United States.

But is progress being made? When it comes to reining in global agriculture’s destruction of forests, the answer would largely seem to depend on just what kind of optimistic person you are.

The good news: More companies than ever have made some kind of pledge to reduce deforestation in their agricultural supply chains, according to the new report released this week by a coalition of nonprofit groups led by the organization Climate Focus. In just one year, the number of companies making such commitments increased 43 percent.

Yet the majority of those pledges don’t come with deadlines for meeting their goals, and fewer than half the companies surveyed report that they are in compliance with their own deforestation policies—the very sort of foot dragging that can seem particularly disheartening at a moment when 2016 is burning up the record books, on track to be the hottest year since...2015.

“What we now need, if forests and climate are to be saved, is action on commodities with the biggest forest impacts, and an increase in partnerships between companies and governments, and among retailers, traders, and producers that pool resources to save forests,” Charlotte Streck, director of Climate Focus, said in a statement.

While half the companies dealing in palm oil and wood have made commitments to curb deforestation, it’s the cattle and soy markets that are the real laggards. Fewer than a quarter of corporate commitments regarding deforestation concern the production of soy, the vast majority of which is used for animal feed, and a mere 12 percent of commitments concern the production of cattle.

It’s a finding that would seem to dovetail with a slew of research surrounding the outsize impact of our collective appetite for beef (and, to a lesser extent, other types of meat) on our planet’s climate. A study out of Oxford University published earlier this year, for example, found that if everyone on the planet were to become vegan, we’d cut climate pollution by 70 percent between now and 2050.

Fat chance of that. But as the landmark international agreement on climate adopted in Paris last year goes into effect, it seems we might all do well in whatever corner of the world we find ourselves to ask whether that juicy hamburger is really worth the cost to our climate after all.