Coming soon: Beef, coffee, and chocolate, without a side of environmental destruction
A new law in Europe could help prevent our favorite foods from flattening forests.
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.
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Many popular grocery store items, from beef to coffee, have a dark side. They’re often grown on land where forests were cut down.
That means that when you shop, you might be inadvertently contributing to the ongoing destruction of nature. And much of it is happening in the Amazon rainforest and Congo Basin — two of the most important ecosystems on Earth.
That’s the bad news.
But thankfully, there’s good news, too. In December, the European Union agreed on a landmark law to prevent companies from selling beef, coffee, and a handful of other commodities in the EU if they’re grown on land where forests were recently cleared.
This legislation — which has yet to be formally approved — is a really big deal. Europe is a major consumer of foreign goods, so it could help clean up the supply chains of multinational companies. The new legislation could also inspire anti-deforestation regulations in other large economies, such as China, and push the US to pass a similar law it’s had in the works for years.
Some environmental advocates argue that the law doesn’t go far enough and, at worst, will just encourage companies to reroute their dirty products elsewhere. But what’s clear is that it sends a loud signal that markets are changing: Products that drive forest loss are no longer acceptable, and voluntary corporate pledges to eliminate deforestation are no longer enough.
“This law indicates that the market for products linked to environmental devastation is quickly closing,” said Hannah Mowat, a campaigns coordinator at the European environmental advocacy organization Fern. “It’s the beginning of the new market norms.”
The EU’s new law could be a game changer for forests
The system that produces the world’s food also destroys its forests. In the tropics — home to much of the world’s biodiversity — agriculture causes nearly two-thirds of all deforestation.
Most forests are slashed to make space for a handful of commodities, such as cattle, soybeans, and palm oil. Many of those products then enter global supply chains that end on grocery shelves. Today, it’s difficult for consumers to know where, exactly, their groceries come from, and whether they’re linked to environmental harm.
While Europe isn’t the largest consumer of most forest-flattening commodities, it’s still a big buyer — and it sources plenty of them from unsustainable farms. The EU is responsible for more than a third of the deforestation linked to crops and animal products traded internationally between 1990 and 2008, according to the European Commission.
That’s why this regulation is so important, said Nathalie Walker, a supply chain expert at the National Wildlife Federation. Europe has a big environmental footprint. What’s more, the status quo isn’t working. For years now, food companies have promised to eliminate deforestation in their supply chains voluntarily, but these pledges haven’t worked (in part because companies often don’t know where their products come from).
The new regulation, meanwhile, isn’t optional. It will require corporations to prove that most products they sell in (or expert from) the EU made with cattle, coffee, chocolate, soy, palm oil, wood, or rubber are produced without destroying or severely damaging forests, from 2021 onward. That includes both illegal and legal deforestation — companies can’t clear trees, even if local laws permit it.
The EU law will also provide a degree of clarity into corporate supply chains, Mowat said. Before selling into EU markets, companies will have to reveal the location of farms where each of their commodities has been produced; they’ll have to trace, say, boxes of chocolate back to a specific grove of cacao trees.
The EU is likely to formally approve the legislation this spring, Walker said, and it will enter into force soon after. Larger corporations will then have a year and a half to comply; smaller companies will have two years. And the regulation includes a range of potential penalties for companies that don’t comply, from fines to sanctions.
The US is weighing a similar law with huge potential
The EU law is, for now, one of a kind. No other countries prohibit the sale of several different products linked to deforestation, according to Walker. (Many countries, including the US and Australia, do prevent companies from importing timber tied to illegal forest loss.)
Governments in a handful of other countries, however, have proposed similar policies. In the fall of 2021, for example, a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers in the US introduced a bill known as the FOREST Act, which seeks to bar companies from importing certain products associated with recent deforestation. Those include the same products covered by the EU regulation, such as cattle and coffee.
Like the EU law, the FOREST Act — short for the Fostering Overseas Rule of law and Environmentally Sound Trade Act — could be transformative. The US is one of the largest beef importers in the world, and some of its supply comes from the Brazilian Amazon, where cattle ranches are replacing forests. The United States also imports more coffee than any other and is a major buyer of palm oil, chocolate, and other commodities grown in the tropics.
“It would be a game changer,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii who introduced the bill to the Senate, because the US influences the global supply chain. “We can make markets and we can break markets,” he said.
There are a handful of differences between the two laws. While the EU legislation applies to all deforestation, for example, the FOREST Act only applies to illegal deforestation. That distinction is not a huge concern, however, because most tropical deforestation related to agriculture is illegal.
The key question now, of course, is whether the bill can pass. Congress didn’t vote on the FOREST Act in 2021 or ’22, and lawmakers now face a Republican majority in the House. Plus, the legislation doesn’t have any Republican cosponsors in the Senate, Schatz said; conservative lawmakers tend to oppose regulations that companies view as burdensome.
Sen. Schatz plans to reintroduce the bill in the first half of 2023 after making an appeal to Senate Republicans to try and secure a cosponsor, he told Vox. There’s “plenty of room for bipartisanship” around the regulation, he said, especially now that the EU bill has been agreed on. “The EU action puts wind in our sails,” Schatz said.
Many of the companies that stock shelves in the EU also deliver goods to the US. So they’ll have to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains regardless of what happens in the US. Agriculture companies have opposed the FOREST Act, Schatz said, but now they may see it as a losing battle. “We’re feeling pretty optimistic going forward.”
The limits of these anti-deforestation laws
Environmental advocates tend to agree that the EU law will be good for forests, but it has left many developing nations — tropical countries, mostly, that produce goods for the EU — frustrated. During the drafting process, ambassadors of more than a dozen countries complained that the EU did not sufficiently consult producer nations, even though it will impact their economies.
“It’s essential that the EU find ways to build effective partnerships with the most important producer countries,” said Tina Schneider, a forest expert at the World Resources Institute, a DC-based research organization.
Some environmental experts also argue that the EU law will do little to curtail ongoing environmental destruction. “Sadly, it’s a missed opportunity,” said Matthew Spencer, global director of landscapes at the sustainable trade organization IDH.
One issue is that the EU law only applies to forests but not other ecosystems with sparser assemblages of trees (known in the regulation as “other wooded lands”). For example, in a tropical savanna in Brazil called the Cerrado, which is rich in biodiversity, soybean farms are spreading, yet much of it will likely remain unprotected by the regulation. (EU policymakers will review the law within a year after it goes into force to determine whether it should also apply to other wooded lands; the US law does apply to other wooded lands.)
Spencer also points out that the EU is a relatively small market for most commodities associated with deforestation, other than cocoa (the EU accounts for 60 percent of global imports). The law will just segregate the market, he said: Commodities that are already produced on land without deforestation will go to Europe and those linked to environmental destruction will continue flowing to places like China and India, where no such policies exist.
“It’s more about making European consumers feel like they’re not part of the problem, rather than actually attacking the problem,” Spencer said. “It’s effectively just pulling up a drawbridge around Europe and saying, ‘Only clean products should come here.’”
It would be more helpful for the EU to provide incentives for farmers and ranchers that are working toward eliminating deforestation, not just for companies that are already deforestation-free, he said.
Still, the law will undoubtedly have far-reaching impacts, especially if it pushes legislators elsewhere to adopt a similar policy. “We believe that if China, India, the US, and Japan took the EU’s lead and emulated these key legal steps, then nearly 75 percent of the world’s imported deforestation could be eliminated within a few years,” Glenn Hurowitz, who leads the nonprofit advocacy group Mighty Earth, recently told the Guardian.
It will likely be years before countries in Asia follow suit. But there’s already reason to expect global deforestation to slow. Indonesia, the world’s largest oil palm producer, has recently managed to keep its trees intact. Brazil, meanwhile, just elected a president who, in the past, helped curtail astronomical rates of environmental destruction.
“We’re at a very important point,” Walker said, for tropical forests. “There’s hope.”