UK legislative proposal builds on commitments to foster climate-resilient agriculture in developing countries

Anna Triponel

August 24, 2020

On 25 August 2020, the UK Government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a proposal for a law that “would prohibit larger businesses operating in the UK from using products grown on land that was deforested illegally. These businesses would be required to carry out due diligence on their supply chains by publishing information to show where key commodities – for example, cocoa, rubber, soy and palm oil – came from and that they were produced in line with local laws protecting forests and other natural ecosystems.” Companies that do not comply with the law would face fines (with the exact amount and conditions for fining businesses determined at a later time.)

Background and context

The proposal was driven in part by the recommendations of the UK’s Global Resource Initiative taskforce established in 2019 with the objective of exploring “ambitious actions to drive more resilient and sustainable food systems that avoid deforestation and environmental degradation overseas, while supporting jobs and livelihoods.” The taskforce comprises several large companies (Cargill, McDonald’s, Tesco, Legal & General) and environmental NGOs (Green Finance Institute, World Wildlife Federation and NGO Forest Coalition).

The proposal is being developed in line with the UK government’s recent commitments to stopping climate change, including a plan to give £11.6 billion in aid between 2021 and 2025 to support developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preventing deforestation and investing in climate resilience projects. The government reports that “[p]rotecting forests is central to tackling climate change, with deforestation accounting for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions.” The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that approximately 80% of tropical deforestation is caused by illegal clearing for agriculture, and that the EU is responsible for approximately 7-10% of global commodity-linked deforestation through companies’ supply chains.

Consultation phase

The government is holding a six-week public consultation on the proposal, seeking input from both UK and international stakeholders. The results of the consultation will help shape the direction for the potential legislation; if the government decides to move forward with developing regulations, it will conduct an impact assessment and hold a second consultation “prescribing what commodities we will include, and when we set out details of the framework of due diligence steps that businesses would need to take.” Comments on the proposal can be submitted online until 11:59 pm on 5 October 2020.

Mixed responses

Several organisations have commented publicly on the proposal, with some welcoming it and others suggesting that it does not go far enough:

  • Mike Barrett, Executive Director of Science and Conservation at WWF-UK (one of the members of the Global Resources Initiative taskforce) expressed support for the proposal, citing the increasing consumer concern about deforestation in the products they purchase. In an August 2020 survey of over 1,300 adults in the UK, WWF UK found that:
  • “67% believe the government should be doing more to tackle destruction in the Amazon”
  • “81% of people said there should be greater transparency of the origin of the products we import into the UK”
  • “Almost three-quarters (73%) said the UK should stop trading with countries that fail to protect the natural environment.”
  • “WWF’s survey also shows shoppers are willing to change what they buy to make a difference, with 74% saying they are more likely to buy products which aren’t destroying the Amazon and more than half (57%) saying they would change their supermarket if a competitor could prove it was doing more to fight deforestation.”
  • Environmental advocacy organisation Greenpeace UK believes the proposal has crucial gaps due to its reliance on enforcement of local laws against deforestation. According to forests campaigner Elena Polisano, “Defra’s [the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs] proposal to make it ‘illegal for larger businesses to use products unless they comply with local laws to protect natural areas’ is seriously flawed,” citing the example of Brazil’s weak governance of land and biodiversity protections in the Amazon rainforest. “There is also nothing in the proposals to address the fact that some commodity producers may have one ‘sustainable’ line but continue to destroy forests elsewhere. This just shifts the problem into someone else’s backyard. We will never solve deforestation for commodities like animal feed soya and palm oil without tackling demand. Companies like Tesco, who sell more meat and dairy and use more soya for animal feed than any other UK retailer, know what they need to do to reduce their deforestation footprint. They must reduce the amount of meat and dairy they sell and drop forest destroyers from their supply chain immediately.”
  • Corporate responsibility advocacy organisation CORE Coalition UK “welcomes the government’s announcement that it will require UK companies to carry out due diligence on their supply chains – but the government must impose due diligence with legal liability for companies across all human rights and environmental harms.” CORE Coalition’s Director Mark Dearn said “[T]o be truly ‘world-leading’ the government must go beyond deforestation to develop a law covering all human rights and environmental abuses linked to British companies, ensuring that they are legally liable if they fail to prevent abuses. Next Spring, the EU plans to table legislation covering human rights and environmental abuses in the supply chains of all businesses operating in the bloc, regardless of where they are based – we need the government to step up with a similar commitment to deal with the harms caused by UK corporations around the world.”

“The UK has a duty to lead the way in combating the biodiversity and nature crisis. We have all seen the devastating pictures of the world’s most precious forests being cleared, often illegally, and we can’t afford not to act as a country. There is a hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is consulting today on new measures that would make it illegal for businesses in the UK to use commodities that are not grown in accordance with local laws.”                        

UK Environment Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK sets out law to curb illegal deforestation and protect rainforests, The Guardian (25 August 2020)

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