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Food brands challenge deforestation rules in UK environment bill

Article Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/25/food-brands-challenge-deforestation-rules-in-uk-environment-bill

Accessed from the world wide web at 09:00 hrs 26.05.21.

Trade associations representing leading food suppliers have questioned the need for new regulations to protect forests overseas, which will come before parliament in the environment bill on Wednesday.

The much-delayed bill will contain provisions to force UK-based companies to examine their supply chains in depth and ensure that they are free of links to land illegally deforested overseas.

It will be the first time such due diligence requirements have been introduced into UK law, and campaigners and some companies have welcomed the changes. Similar regulations are also planned in the EU.

However, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that companies and trade associations representing household brands have said that the requirements could be too onerous, raise costs, or may not work.

Cargill, the US-based commodity giant that has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon, told the government it would cost more: “There is a risk due diligence will not sufficiently overcome [issues with traceability of goods] without harming supply chain resilience and efficiency, with associated cost impacts.”

Some agriculture and food industry trade bodies also questioned the penalties proposed in the new bill, of fines on companies that contravene the requirements.

The Seed Crushers and Oil Processors Association (SCOPA), which represents soy and palm oil companies, said in its response: “We are not comfortable with the threat of fines levied against companies contravening this law. Unless such contraventions could be defined in some ways as deliberate or knowingly, the danger is companies could be penalised despite doing all in their power to comply.”

The International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), whose members include the Brazilian meat companies JBS and Minerva which have been associated with deforestation in the Amazon, answered “don’t know” to a question in the environment bill consultation, which asked whether it should be illegal in the UK for companies to use forest risk commodities that came from illegally deforested land overseas.

The IMTA also questioned whether fines were needed, asking: “Has consideration been given to an incentives-based approach rather than one focusing on fines?”

The Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) said in its response to the threat of fines: “The process must be extremely robust because it could unnecessarily and unwittingly damage the reputation of a firm … This is especially true of larger firms, national or multinational firms, that are answerable to shareholders; it cannot be understated how damaging a government-issued fine or reprimand could be.”

The AIC, which represents farm suppliers in the UK, also warned of raised costs and called on the government to “recognise and work with existing measures and initiatives in place before anything else”.

The Chilled Foods Association (CFA) also questioned whether due diligence was needed, saying it was “already done where possible”, and said that public reporting was “already challenged internally by many member companies”.

Sam Lawson, founder of the campaigning group Earthsight, which obtained the FoI responses, said: “Big agribusinesses operating in the tropics claim to be serious about tackling deforestation, but their associations’ lukewarm response to this law is telling. They want the government to trust them to do the right thing. But they have repeatedly shown they cannot be trusted. This law needs to be given teeth.”

He contrasted the responses questioning the requirements with some companies that have embraced the bill. Unilever, Nestlé and the British Retail Consortium responded to the consultation by urging ministers to strengthen the law to ban all deforestation-linked imports.

A spokesperson for Cargill said: “Cargill is firmly committed to transforming its agricultural supply chains to be deforestation and conversion-free through prioritised supply chain policies and time-bound action plans. We welcome and support the UK’s attention and commitment to due diligence for forest risk commodities. We believe the complexity of the challenge warrants careful consideration as to the most appropriate ‘smart mix’ of tools that would contribute to solving the root causes of the challenge. For that, engagement and dialogue with producing countries, where this challenge and the need for capacity-building is most acute, is of utmost importance.”

Angela Bowden, secretary general of SCOPA, said: “In no way is SCOPA looking to ‘water down’ this proposed legislation, indeed [our] members all have robust due diligence systems in place now and report on these publicly. Any legislation must be enforceable and as such must recognise the complexities of commodity supply chains and encourage partnership with producer countries to achieve sustainable transformation of supply chains. Without this there is a danger of disengagement with high-risk areas, which would be both detrimental to third country suppliers and detrimental to the goals of addressing deforestation risk and supporting sustainable production.”

A spokesperson for IMTA said: “IMTA responded to the government consultation regarding due diligence on forest risk commodities. We support the government looking at this initiative and in our response called for ‘full engagement and collaboration with the supply chain’ to ‘best ensure that resulting policy recommendations are as effective as possible’.”

The AIC said it was not opposed to fines, or to the due diligence requirements in the bill. “If any business in a supply chain is knowingly supplying products sourced illegally, it is right that sanctions are applied, however AIC is clear that the process must be robust and fair. The AIC position is that the proposed legislation should build upon the UK roundtables on sustainable soy and palm [oil] and UK Global Resource Initiative whose recommendations were the precursor to the due diligence legislation.”

Karin Goodburn, director general of the CFA, said: “To challenge in our industry means something that is examined extensively and audited. Our members already report on CSR/sustainability to their retail customers. To do so directly to government would be duplication of data. The type of due diligence undertaken as standard in our sector goes beyond any current legally mandated approach and is dependent on retail customers’ requirements.”