Fall 2012

Like Deforestation with Your Burger? | Catalyst Fall 2012

Tropical forests are being cleared at an alarming rate to meet rising demand for meat, vegetable oil, and wood products. But UCS shows that it doesn’t have to be this way.

By Sarah Roquemore

It’s dinner time and you’ve grilled some steaks for your family to enjoy at the dining room table. After dinner you open a box of cookies for a quick treat. That meal might have included one ingredient you weren’t expecting: tropical deforestation.

More and more tropical forests are being cleared to make room for industrial agriculture that produces goods like beef and vegetable oils, and timber plantations that supply wood and paper products. The resulting deforestation causes about 15 percent of global warming pollution worldwide, harms biodiversity, and hurts the millions of people who rely on these forests for their livelihoods.

Fortunately, your family dinner can have a happy ending. A series of three UCS reports recently examined the main drivers of tropical deforestation and found that businesses, governments, and consumers can all contribute to forest-friendly policies and products.

Out of the Frying Pan, into . . . Your Shampoo

Vegetable oil consumption is outpacing population growth because it is now used for much more than cooking. Vegetable oils are commonly found in thousands of products, ranging from processed foods like cookies to cleaning products and shampoo. (In processed foods, most oils are clearly listed on the ingredient label, but it is trickier to identify oils in cosmetics and household products because only the chemical names are typically listed: sodium laureth sulfate and stearic acid are two such ingredients that may be derived from palm oil.) Growing government mandates for vegetable oil-based biodiesel are also driving demand.

Progress on Palm Oil

Can one company's about-face on tropical deforestation inspire others?

For many years, Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, used palm oil in products like its Kit Kat candy bars. But in 2010, Greenpeace launched a campaign highlighting the fact that the palm oil in Kit Kat bars is linked to the deforestation that is pushing the world’s orangutan population to the brink of extinction. The thousands of responses Nestlé received pushed the company to create a comprehensive zero- deforestation policy for all its ingredients—even the paper used in its packaging—and has been making strong progress in implementing these requirements for its global supply chains.

Not all companies have reacted as decisively. Since 2007, two Girl Scouts, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, have been fighting to make Girl Scout cookies deforestation-free. In 2010 UCS joined forces with the girls to raise awareness of palm oil’s impacts. Yet, after meetings and phone calls with executives of the organization, and more than 80,000 letters from activists worldwide (including UCS members), Girl Scouts USA has yet to source deforestation-free palm oil in its cookies. Learn more and join this campaign.

Orangutans will continue to lose their natural habitat unless more companies follow the example set by Nestle in demanding deforestation-free palm oil.

As our report Recipes for Success, released in February,found, palm oil is the dominant vegetable oil on the market today because its high crop yields allow large amounts to be produced at low cost. But it is the worst in terms of deforestation and global warming emissions. The area harvested for palm oil in the tropics (primarily Indonesia and Malaysia) has doubled in just a decade, including production on peat swamps that release significant amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when drained of water and then burned (or left to decompose).

What’s in the Meat You Eat?

Eating meat has a major effect on deforestation because producing meat—particularly beef—uses a lot of land. Land is needed both for grazing and for growing feed crops (like corn). In recent years, much of the land cleared for meat production has come from tropical forests.

Our June analysis, Grade A Choice?,uncovered the ecological inefficiency of beef production: it uses about 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land yet produces less than 5 percent of the world’s protein and less than 2 percent of the world’s calories. And as more people around the globe view beef as the centerpiece of a meal instead of an occasional treat, this inefficiency is expected to become more pronounced.

The Knock on Wood

Everyone knows that paper and wood products come from trees—but not everyone considers the source of the trees. Although our report Wood for Good,released in September, found the amount of wood and paper coming into the United States from tropical trees to be small, tropical production is increasing. Perhaps most surprisingly, we found that wood pulp (used to make paper) is one of the fastest-growing wood product sectors, even in this age of e-mail and e-readers. The countries losing their forests at the fastest rate (mainly tropical countries) are also becoming more significant exporters in the global wood market.

Despite their negative connotations, timber plantations can be one of the best sources for wood products if they are well managed. But few countries or companies have policies in place to ensure their plantations do not replace natural forests, or that forests partially cleared for timber are not then completely cleared for palm oil or cattle (a common occurrence in tropical forests).

A Forest-Friendly Future

Together, we can reverse these trends and ensure that the products we use and the foods we eat are not contributing to tropical deforestation. There are a variety of ways consumers like you can make a difference:

Reduce demand. Cutting back on the amount of palm-oil-, beef-, and wood-based products we use can help take pressure off of forests. Choosing the lowest-impact option when buying these products can also help; for example, consider swapping beef for pork or chicken, which require three to five times less land. In addition, use paper with the highest recycled content possible—and recycle it afterward—and buy things in bulk to reduce packaging.


Forest-Friendly Labels a Good Start

But stronger policies are needed to truly protect tropical forests.

Buying products that bear the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label, which certify wood and palm oil producers, respectively, is an easy way to help protect forests and support businesses that do the same, but even these programs can be improved with higher standards. As Catalyst went to press, UCS was applying for membership as an official stakeholder in the RSPO, which will help us push for certification standards—based on the best available science—that make meaningful strides toward protecting forests.

UCS is also calling on companies to not just buy or sell certified products, but to go a step further and actually ensure that their supply chains are not causing tropical deforestation. Consumers can help in this regard by increasing their demand for certified goods, which encourages more companies to become certified and, in turn, address deforestation in supply chains.

Support deforestation-free products. Businesses that use products or ingredients that drive tropical deforestation should assess their practices and ensure their supply chains are forest-friendly. Many times, however, securing these changes requires pressure from an outside force. Consumers can play a large role by supporting businesses that have policies that protect forests (e.g., only sourcing palm oil produced on non-forested land) and pressuring companies that do not. These efforts can be very effective: for example, a strong outcry from the Brazilian people led the nation’s soybean industry to place a voluntary moratorium on expanding its Amazon harvest in 2006, which has helped Brazil reduce its deforestation rates by more than 80 percent. (See the sidebar for additional examples.)

Support good government policies. Governments should establish strong agricultural policies that discourage development in or near forests, and avoid loopholes or subsidies for commodities that drive deforestation. Equally important is ensuring the enforcement of good laws; the United States’ Lacey Act bans the trade of illegally sourced plant products, including wood, but is under attack by anti-regulation groups. Tell your elected leaders that you support laws and regulations that encourage deforestation-free development.

No single action offers a complete solution. Every link in the supply chain—from loggers to producers to retailers to consumers—must help ensure that we can meet future demand for vegetable oils, meat, and wood products while protecting the planet’s tropical forests.


Sarah Roquemore is the outreach coordinator for the UCS Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative.


UCS has a wealth of resources on the drivers of—and solutions to—tropical deforestation. Download our recent reports.