How can I make sure the food I buy isn't contributing to destroying forests in Brazil?

Some of the food in the UK's supermarkets are linked to soya that is contributing to deforestation. Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA

Some of the food we are buying and eating in the UK is being linked to deforestation in other countries.

An investigation by ITV News, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Greenpeace Unearthed has linked some of Britain’s best known dairy brands to the destruction of Brazilian forest through soya.

A lot of it comes down to the unsustainable farming of soya, which forms part of the supply chain for many dairy products.

So how is our food contributing to global deforestation and how can we make sure the soya-related products we eat are ethical?

What are the environmental issues related to soya?

Soya, which is native to Asia, is a source of protein that is used to feed farm animals.

But in Brazil and Argentina, as well as in Paraguay and elsewhere, soya bean farming has been linked to high levels of deforestation.

Although the soya moratorium, a ban on clearing the Amazon rainforest for soya production, was agreed in 2006, the problem has moved elsewhere, including to the Cerrado biome.

Global exports of Brazilian soya were still linked to 500 sq km of deforestation in 2018, according to analysis by supply chain consultancy Trase.

How do the different certification schemes work? And are they the answer?

Food manufacturers, fast food chains and supermarkets are using certification schemes to try to offset the problem. But not all of them are the answer because some still involve the use of soya linked to deforestation.

There are three main types of certification schemes:

  • The credit scheme

This is the most basic certification tier and it involves companies promising to pay to offset the damage caused by the soya-related products (meat and dairy included) they use.

The money used to offset the damage is paid to soya farmers who are producing soya sustainably, deforestation-free.

In the UK, chicken restaurant chain Nando's, McDonald's, supermarket Asda and some dairy manufacturers, including Arla Foods and Saputo, have used the credit scheme.

One of the most well known credit schemes is run by the Roundtable on Sustainable Soya (RTRS).

Some dairy cattle are being fed soy that has been farmed unsustainably Credit: AP/Rodrigo Abd
  • Mass balance

This is the next tier up in the certification rankings. It means there must be a fixed proportion of sustainable soy in the supply chain that can be mixed with non-certified soya - but the proportions in the final product must be the same as the amount that went in.

The mixing of soya beans harvested from different (sustainable and non-certified) soy farms happens in the manufacture and transportation of animal feed, for example when the beans are funnelled into big silos and put onto big ships to be transported to the animals.

And as animals feed on soya throughout their lives, there is additional mixing of sustainable and non-certified soya used.

The point of the mass balance scheme is to ensure there is a fixed and controllable proportion of sustainable soya throughout the whole supply chain.

One example of a mass balance scheme is Cargill’s Triple S certification, which is operational in Brazil and Paraguay and is used by a number of major UK firms and supermarkets.

Critics such as Greenpeace say such schemes are effectively greenwash that allow forest destruction to continue. The companies who use them say they help fund progress towards less destructive farming, but many admit more needs to be done.

  • Fully segregated soya

This is the top end of the certification system, where the whole supply system from start to end involves soya that is deforestation-free.

One global grain trader ADM is offering this option, and at least one retailer said it plans to use this scheme.

How can I make sure the food I buy hasn't contributed to deforestation?

When it comes to meat and dairy, there's no sure way to check whether what you're buying contains soya that is linked with deforestation, Anna Jones, head of forests and food at Greenpeace UK, says. That is because as it stands, it is hard to trace where soya beans have been grown as the supply process is so big and complex.

Corporations linked with deforestation also produce soya-based foods, like tofu or soya milk.

But Ms Jones explained: "By eating more soya-based foods like tofu or soya milk, we eliminate the need to feed these crops to animals so less land is needed for food production overall.

"Right now, meat and dairy production uses 83% of farmland, but provides just18% of calories and 37% of protein."

She added another way to make sure our food is ethical is to "call on companies to be more transparent about their supply chain and call on the government to do more to ensure deforestation products don't come into UK".

Mrs Jones says and there needs to be more controls in place to trace where sustainable soya beans have come from.

"Just right now, there is a big Environment Bill going through Parliament, and one of the clauses in that does relate to agricultural commodities coming into the UK and is attempting to ensure those commodities that include illegal deforestation can't come into the UK", she said.

"But the issue is many countries like Brazil is classing deforestation as legal and obviously all deforestation conributes to the climate crisis. We need to be talking about all deforestation."