UK domestic law could help reduce global deforestation for agricultural use

Nov 16th, 2020

Françoise Vandale, Partner

Last month I wrote about the various new Woodland Grant Schemes, which will start to run in parts of the UK in January 2021. It is certainly welcomed that the Government recognises the importance of woodland management in the quest to combat climate change and deliver our net carbon commitment to the planet by 2050. Deforestation is apparently now the second leading cause of climate change globally (after burning of fossil fuels) and it is the result of forests being converted into agricultural use to grow instead commodity products used globally. How woodland absorbs and stores carbon is nothing short of amazing. By destroying them, the stored carbon is released into the air, and this, according to Defra, causes around 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.

As part of the 25-year Environment Plan, the Government is now looking at how we can assist in reducing deforestation globally by reducing the use of products grown on de-forested land in our domestic food supply chains. In 2019 the Government set up the Global Initiative Task Force to investigate this issue. Its report, delivered in March, concluded that a mandatory due diligence requirement for supply chain businesses is essential to help efforts to decrease global deforestation.

A Government consultation recently closed setting out legislative proposals. If passed, the law would hold larger businesses to account for any products they purchase that use the commodities whose production causes extensive deforestation. This would affect items such as palm oil, soya, beef, rubber and cocoa. It is without question that if such items were produced in such a way in the UK they would be illegal, so why should businesses be allowed to source produce internationally that would be illegal if grown here? Essentially it is the same argument for the back British farmers campaign.

Through the consultation process the Government sought views from stakeholders in the supply chain to see what impact its proposals might have on businesses and other interests. It said it will set minimum standards for larger companies to follow to ensure they are only importing commodities that have been legally grown in their country of origin. If these standards are not adhered to, there will be civil sanctions and fines would be levied.

The Government’s proposal has come under scrutiny for not going far enough in its aim to reduce global deforestation because it only focuses on deforestation that is illegal under local laws and does not apply to commodities that have been produced through deforestation which has taken place legally. Furthermore, the law will, initially at least, only affect larger companies of a certain turnover and/or amount of staff employed. It is thought that many agri-food companies are medium-sized and thus might remain under the required threshold to be held to account.

Regardless of the shortcomings of the Government’s proposals it is welcomed by many and it is hoped that the majority of the UK will support its aim to help diminish an ever growing global concern.

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