Indonesian palm oil, Brazilian beef top contributors to U.S. deforestation exposure

Source:  Mongabay
  • A new report reveals that the United States imported palm oil, cattle products, soybeans, cocoa, rubber, coffee and corn linked to an area of tropical deforestation the size of Los Angeles between October 2021 and November 2023.
  • Palm oil from Indonesia was the largest contributor to deforestation, followed by Brazil due to cattle grazing.
  • The report by Trase, commissioned by Global Witness, found that the U.S. continues to import deforestation-linked commodities while awaiting the passage of the FOREST Act, which aims to prohibit imports of products linked to illegal deforestation.
  • Experts emphasize the need for action from companies, governments, financial institutions and citizens to stop commodity-driven forest loss, urging support for smallholders, increased transparency in supply chains, and the passage of the FOREST Act in the U.S.

If you’re in the United States, your meal might come with a side of deforestation.  The US imported palm oil, cattle products, soybeans, cocoa, rubber, coffee and corn linked to an estimated 122,800 hectares (303,445 acres) of tropical deforestation between October 2021 and November 2023 — an area the size of the city of Los Angeles, according to a new report provided by the NGO Trase for Global Witness.

More than a third (33.8%) of the deforestation was linked to oil palm imports, primarily from Indonesia. Cattle products, sourced mainly from Brazil, Australia and Mexico, were the second-largest contributor, at 31.8%. Coffee placed third, at 24.2%, followed by cocoa (7.6%), soybeans (2%), corn (0.37%) and rubber (0.15%).

“I think it’s quite striking how palm oil was potentially quite a big source of deforestation exposure for the U.S. as a commodity that has received lots of attention,” Mark Titley, senior research associate at Trase, told Mongabay.

Several Latin American countries were identified as significant sources of deforestation. Brazil was the second-largest contributor to U.S. deforestation exposure, primarily through cattle products. Colombia was the source of nearly a fifth of the deforestation linked to U.S. coffee imports. Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras also contributed, mainly by exporting cattle products, coffee and cocoa.

Trase’s methodology combines satellite data on tree cover loss with trade records and commodity production data to estimate the amount of deforestation per ton of production in each country and year.

“So if we’re looking at palm oil, we need to know how much oil palm fruit was actually harvested to work out how much deforestation might be linked to those imports,” Titley said.

Figure from Trase report 2024

These figures are likely to underestimate the true scale of deforestation driven by U.S. imports, as they don’t include commodities imported via intermediary countries (such as cacao grown in Africa and processed in Belgium before being exported to the U.S.). The analysis also excludes processed goods, where many commodities like palm oil end up.

“This analysis didn’t include things like toothpaste, or a frozen lasagna, or some of these much more derived products,” Titley said.

The report, commissioned by Global Witness, found that despite industry and government pledges to remove deforestation from supply chains, the U.S. continues to import commodities tied to deforestation while awaiting the passage of the Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade (FOREST) Act.

The FOREST Act seeks to prohibit the import of “any product made wholly or in part of a covered commodity produced from illegally deforested land.” These covered commodities include palm oil, soybeans, cocoa, cattle, rubber and wood pulp.

The bill would make it possible for the U.S. to prosecute organizations and people driving illegal deforestation, and establish a fund to help countries transition away from deforestation while creating enforcement and conservation programs.

The FOREST Act was first introduced in Congress in October 2021. The bill failed to advance and was reintroduced in November 2023. Global Witness approached Trase to quantify the environmental cost of this legislative delay.

“We wanted to show the impact of the delay in implementing the FOREST Act in terms of areas of tropical forest lost during this time,” Ashley Thomson, senior policy adviser at Global Witness, told Mongabay in an email.

Titley pointed out that the FOREST Act only covers illegal deforestation and not all deforestation, which is “an important blind spot, especially when we think about something like palm oil in Indonesia, where most of the deforestation is legal.”

“While [the FOREST ACT] is not perfect, it’s a crucial first step,” Thomson said. “Every day this law remains in draft form, another area of forest is lost. The US will import products that cause forest destruction until the law is passed and enforced.”

Titley said the responsibility to stop commodity-driven forest loss depends on companies, governments, financial institutions and citizens.

“Because we know those clear entry points,” he said. “There’s no excuse for no action now that we have this data.

Companies can implement strict sourcing policies, ensure full traceability of their supply chains, and invest in sustainable production practices. Financial institutions can develop and implement policies restricting financing for companies and projects linked to deforestation.

“Despite many years of commitments from governments and private sector…they’re not going far enough to stop deforestation,” Titley said. “We still have stubbornly high rates of deforestation around the world.”

Governments have the power to enact and enforce laws and regulations prohibiting the import of commodities linked to deforestation, providing incentives for companies to adopt sustainable practices and penalizing those contributing to forest loss.

“We really need to see support for smallholders [small-scale farmers] to make sure they’re able to like produce these commodities sustainably,” Titley said.

He also stressed the importance of avoiding leakage, the phenomenon where prohibiting deforestation in a given area just pushes it to another region or country without strong regulations or enforcement.

“We need to see more and more governments working together to coordinate on these kinds of policies … if they’re going to be effective,” Titley said.

The Trase website has free, open data on commodity trade lined to deforestation.
An example of Trase data on Brazilian beef trade linked to deforestation. Screenshot from Trase website.

Citizens have the power to drive change through their consumption choices. By supporting companies that have committed to deforestation-free supply chains, and by reducing consumption of products linked to deforestation, individuals can send a strong signal to the market.

Trase produces data sets on the deforestation exposure of particular high-risk countries and commodities, such as Indonesian palm oil, Brazilian cattle and Brazilian soy. Much of this information is free and easily accessible.

Tools like PalmWatch, an online, open-source platform, are working to bring greater transparency to complex global supply chains, allowing consumers to trace the impact of palm oil.

In the U.S. specifically, Thompson urged citizens to contact their elected representatives and push for the passage of the FOREST Act, noting that the U.S. lags behind the U.K. and the EU, which have already enacted laws regulating deforestation-linked imports.

“We can end forest destruction by 2030 and start restoring our planet’s precious ecosystems,” Thompson said. “But we need leaders to step up and seize the opportunities given to them.”

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