How Brazil clamped down on deforestation

Khor Reports comment: Worth reading this piece from The Economist: I'm hoping to soon get hold of a the source article in Science. I've been reviewing soy sustainability. State regulations are an important part, as are proactive and well functioning industry associations that seem well engaged with all levels of administration. Some sources point out that Brazil has a well-engaged and active domestic NGO sector, which also pushed the earlier changes via domestic contestation. To be sure, implementation was a major question mark and international pressure has been for Brazil's relatively strict regulations to be followed. There are also efforts at information reporting on GIS mapping of deforestation and such. Bottomline, Brazil annual deforestation is now about 500,000 hectares and it's attributed significantly / mostly to smallholders.

The Economist writes, "But how did it break the vicious cycle in which—it was widely expected—farmers and cattle ranchers (the main culprits in the Amazon) would make so much money from clearing the forest that they would go on cutting down trees until there were none left? After all, most other rainforest countries, such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have failed to stop the chainsaws. The answer, according to a paper just published in Science by Dan Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute in San Francisco, is that there was no silver bullet but instead a three-stage process in which bans, better governance in frontier areas and consumer pressure on companies worked, if fitfully and only after several false starts." It concludes: "By any standards, Brazil’s Amazon policy has been a triumph, made the more remarkable because it relied on restrictions rather than incentives, which might have been expected to have worked better. Over the period of the study, Brazil also turned itself into a farming superpower, so the country has shown it is possible to get a huge increase in food output without destroying the forest (though there was some deforestation at first). Still, as Dr Nepstad concedes, a policy of “thou-shalt-not” depends on political support at the top, which cannot be guaranteed. Moreover, the policies so far have been successful among commercial farmers and ranchers who care about the law and respond to market pressures; hence the effectiveness of boycotts. Most remaining deforestation is by smallholders who care rather less about these things, so the government faces the problem of persuading them to change their ways, too. Deforestation has been slowed, but not yet stopped."


US soybean sustainability issues and approach

Summary by Khor Reports, 24 March 2014 from presentation by Josiah McClellan; Director of Food Market Issues and Sustainability, United Soybean Board; March 16-18 2014 at National Institute of Oilseed Products (snapshot of key slides in image below).

Interesting to see US soybean industry facing similar issues as palm oil in certification:
  • increasing importance of ISCC
  • "certification fatigue"
  • competition between and within NGOs
  • the need for equivalence
  • problem of “moving targets”…

What's notable is US soybean’s research-based data-intensive approach which includes: a) measure of environmental impacts of US soybean production 1980-2011; b) measurement of efficiency and other performance measures by grower; c) survey for practice adoption intensity by state; d) use of sustainability-yield models and e) focus on industry-scalable approach, addressing key industry priorities and industry collaborative efforts. 

Khor Report comment:

There is increased need for research-data intensive approach for palm oil to tell its story. So far, NGO-led voluntary sustainability certification does little in terms of positive comparatives (e.g. palm oil vs soybean vs rapeseed); much to palm oil's frustration since it does well on many key comparative measures. Indeed, some supply-chain companies wonder if international campaigning has been so successful as to drive some markets toward "no palm oil" (some NGO ratings of "sustainable palm oil" products give the highest ratings for those containing NO palm oil). 

The increasingly popular ISCC (principally for biofuel but with a new food module) method is more comparative given that it's a multi-feedstock certification. Most NGO-led certification look only for internal changes and improvements i.e. no more use of peat and no more deforestation but independent data and impact studies have been notably lagging ten years into the palm oil sustainability movement. NGO-led certification has been critiqued for being relatively blind to national development goals and socio-political fissures in Southeast Asia. In this regard, the current phase of escalating sustainability compliance (silence on premiums implies cost to producers rather than shared benefit of premiums) will undoubtedly include national policy makers as they mediate and negotiate the detailed implementation of what is proposed by NGOs and dominant companies, especially for smallholders (Indonesia regulatory changes are significant in this sphere). At the same time, we hear of corporate interest in expanding resources for more rigorous studies to support palm oil marketing on various features. As such, the approach of competitor oils is pertinent and the US soybean story is worth looking at. The bottom-line? Data. Data. Data.

The difference in palm oil and soybean certification is also notable. Please read our blog posts on comparative differences between the WWF-Roundtables, RSPO and RTRS: