How Britain's chicken addiction is driving deforestation in Brazil

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

From the air, it looks like a wildfire. Columns of smoke obscuring the horizon, a blazing front of flames consuming a vast expanse of tropical woodland.

You can’t see the flames or smell the smoke - it’s happening 5,000 miles away - but this fire was set deliberately, to help rear the chicken that you buy on the high street.

An investigation by ITV News, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Greenpeace’s Unearthed team and The Guardian has unpicked the complex supply chain driving this deforestation. At its root is soybeans, a key ingredient in chicken feed.

We've been able to track the journey of the soya bean from deforested land to the feed mills and then chicken farms and on to the shelves of Britain’s leading supermarkets and fast-food outlets.



The Cerrado

Much of the soy imported from Brazil to the UK comes from the Cerrado. It's a mix of dry forest and savanna, not as lush as Brazil's Amazon, but critical nonetheless.

Covering 2 million sq km of land, it's the most biodiverse savanna in the world, home to native species like giant anteaters and jaguars.

The Cerrado is also a critical region for tackling climate change, but it's increasingly under threat from the impact of industrial food production.

  • Aerial footage shows vast swathes of Brazil being burnt to sow soybeans

In the last decade, more of the Cerrado has been lost than the Amazon. It’s estimated only half of the original habitat remains.Most of it has been cleared — by burning and cutting — to make way for agriculture. The main crop: protein-rich soya that is a key ingredient in animal feed. 

Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Nando’s and McDonald’s source chicken produced in the UK by the agribusiness giant Cargill – America’s biggest private company.  

While many other companies import soya to the UK, Cargill ships the most. An estimated 100,000 tonnes of soybeans arrive at its terminal in Liverpool each year from Brazil’s threatened Cerrado region.

Last month, drone footage filmed by ITV News revealed an area of the Cerrado, owned by a company that supplies Cargill on fire. The investigation has followed soya from farms on the same land across the Atlantic to Cargill’s UK chicken operation.

Tracing the supply chain

The investigation followed a shipment of soy sourced from the deforested area to the port of Cotegipe, where it joined a consignment heading to Cargill’s soya terminal in Liverpool.

The shipment was then tracked heading to animal feed mills owned by Cargill in Herefordshire and Oxfordshire. 

  • Watch: How soybeans reach the fields of the Cerrado to the shores of Britain

The soya was then combined with other grains like wheat to make chicken feed before being supplied to farms which rear chicken for Cargill’s UK chicken business - a company called Avara.

The investigation then followed one branch of that chain, from Avara’s chicken farms in Herefordshire to the Cargill-owned abattoir on the outskirts of Hereford. 

The abbattoir supplies chicken to retailers including Tesco, Lidl, Asda and fast food restaurants Nando’s and McDonald’s. 

Through this global supply system, there is an indisputable link between forests burning in Brazil and the chicken we buy in Britain.

  • ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke explains how soy from Brazil is feeding the UK's chicken addiction

Cargill said it is “committed to nourishing the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way” and aimed to eliminated deforestation from its soya production. It told us an estimated 96% of its soya was deforestation-free. 

"Cargill does not and will not supply soy from farmers who clear land in protected areas," it said.

But broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham, in response to the revelations, told ITV News: “Most people would be incredulous when they think they’re buying a piece of chicken in Tesco which has been fed on a crop responsible for one of the largest wholesale tropical forest destructions in recent times. “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 investigation followed a shipment of soy from Brazil sourced from the deforested area to the port of Cotegipe. The final shipment included soy from other big exporters including another American firm Bunge, but all of it was headed to Cargill’s soya terminal in Liverpool.

The shipment was then tracked heading to animal feed mills owned by Cargill in Herefordshire and Oxfordshire. Soya is then combined with other grains like wheat to make chicken feed before being supplied to farms which rear chicken for Cargill’s UK chicken business - a company called Avara.

The investigation then followed one branch of that chain, from Avara’s chicken farms in Herefordshire to the Cargill-owned abattoir on the outskirts of Hereford.

Chicken from there is then supplied to retailers including Tesco, Lidl, Asda and restaurants Nando’s and McDonald’s. Through this global supply system there is an indisputable link between forests burning in Brazil and the chicken we buy in Britain.

  • Environmental activist Chris Packham on the impact soy beaning harvesting has on the climate

In response to our investigation, the retailers all told us they are committed to tackling deforestation. 

A McDonald's spokesperson said it had set a goal to eliminate deforestation in its supply chain by 2030. It also said the soya it buys is covered by "certification" credits supporting sustainable soya production.

Nando's said that deforestation is a "very real and serious issue" and it was looking at more sustainable feed alternatives. It also uses credits to cover the soya fed the chickens it uses. Tesco and ASDA told us they too rely on sustainable soya credits to mitigate the impacts of their soya sourcing on deforestation. 

Chicken producer AVARA told us it buys credits to cover 100% of its soya supply chain. 

  • 'We need companies to do the right thing' Greenpeace's Chiara Vitali says more must be done to combat industrial farming

Critics of the certification system point out that while it does support the sustainable production of soya, it doesn't prevent the continued destruction of forest nor solve the problem of soya linked to deforestation ending up in their products.

Tesco, Asda, Lidl and AVARA all told us that they were committed to move beyond credits and ensure that all their soya is "physically certified" as deforestation free by 2025. 

All these companies, along with along with 82 others recently wrote to the government in support of legislation designed to eliminate deforestation from UK supply chains. 

However, campaigners and some politicians argue the current proposals for a new law doesn’t go far enough. It can only target illegal deforestation, and many areas of forest, like the part of the Cerrado we filmed burning, is not protected by Brazilian law.

Vast areas of the Cerado are being destroyed to make room for agricultural products such as soy beans. Credit: ITV News

"The UK government has proposed legislation but this investigation shows that actually, deforestation can still make it into our food system", according to Greenpeace's Chiara Vitali.

"The deforestation we're looking at here is legal and industrial meat itself is the biggest driver. This legislation is not going to address that."