The world has lost one third of its forest, with half of that loss occurring in the last century, the World Resources Institute reports. Two new laws being debated in the European Union and U.S. aim to put an end to this by banning goods linked to deforestation from entering their borders.
The European Commission finds that deforestation is still accelerating because of consumer demand for cheap beef, soy, chocolate, and other agricultural goods. Data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that almost 90 percent of deforestation is caused by agriculture.
Deforestation is directly linked to 10 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, as stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Furthermore, deforestation threatens at least 28,000 species, displaces communities around the world, and may disrupt the livelihoods of 1.25 billion people according to the WWF.
The EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) aims to tackle deforestation by requiring companies to prove that their products are produced legally and on land that was not deforested after 2020. Pascal Canfin, Chair of the European Parliament’s Environment committee explains that for the first time companies will actually need “satellite images and GPS coordinates to show exactly where the commodity comes from.”
The law will go into force in early 2023 and companies will have either 18 or 24 months, depending on size, from that date to comply. Environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and WWF are calling the law “groundbreaking” and the “first of its kind”.
Lawmakers in the United States are hopeful that the EU Deforestation Law gives new impetus to similar legislation, known as the FOREST Act (Fostering Overseas Rule of law and Environmentally Sound Trade) in the U.S.. “The European legislation is an important step forward,” Congressmember Earl Blumenauer tells Food Tank. “It will highlight the need for American action to fill these gaps.”
Blumenauer is the sponsor of the FOREST Act, which is now under review by the Senate Committee on Finance.
International environmental regulation “can be modestly controversial,” says Blumenauer to Food Tank. “But what [the FOREST Act] does is it levels the playing field. It means that the people in the United States who play by the rules are strengthened, and it is harder for the cheaters to get an unfair advantage.”
If passed, the FOREST Act will combat illegal deforestation by targeting six of the greatest culprits: Palm oil, soybeans, cocoa, cattle, rubber, and wood pulp. This will include products made from those commodities, including beef, chocolate, leather, or paper. If a company wants to bring those products into the U.S. market, then they will have to provide information on the product’s supply chain and point of origin to prove that no forests were illegally cut down to grow it.
“Our trade policy has basically worked on behalf of the meat industry and global grain companies and has really not acknowledged that there is a climate crisis. This is a major development,” Ben Lilliston, Director of Climate Change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) tells Food Tank.
But Lilliston also points out that in many ways, the FOREST Act and EU Deforestation Law do not go far enough. For example, both laws exclude vital ecosystems like wetlands and savannahs from protection.
“Just focusing on forests is too narrow. These other natural areas are enormously valuable, and if they just shift production of cattle or cocoa from the Amazon to the Cerrado, we haven’t really gained much,” says Lilliston.
Environmentalists also worry that while the EU Deforestation Law combats all forest destruction, the FOREST Act only targets illegal deforestation. “This is a very blurry line, what is legal and illegal. Protected areas can suddenly go up for grabs when someone new takes office. It’s not just illegal deforestation that’s the problem,” says Lilliston.
Producer countries that will feel the effects of the legislation, including Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are also speaking out. The Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia says the EU Deforestation Law is “unfair” and will require significant changes to their national and economic development plans. And researchers from the Indonesian environmental NGO Madani find that it may also be difficult for smallholder farmers to comply with the strict traceability and data requirements.
To address these concerns, the EU has established a US$1 billion fund to help producer countries reorient their economies away from extraction and deforestation. The FOREST Act will also set aside financial assistance to help countries respond to the law, some made out explicitly for “civil society, Indigenous peoples, and local residents” who are combating deforestation on the ground.
Lilliston emphasizes that these kinds of laws are monumental in fighting climate change and pushing global markets for agricultural products towards a more sustainable and ethical future. “We’re entering into a new era of trade that has to incorporate the climate crisis.”
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