Chicken from UK supermarkets and fast-food chains ‘fuelling mass forest loss in South America’

Greenpeace calls for meat-reduction targets by big stores that ‘fail to monitor suppliers’ but run promotions

Jane Dalton
Tuesday 21 January 2020 07:59 GMT
Illegal logging in Argentina, where forests are being replaced by soya plantations
Illegal logging in Argentina, where forests are being replaced by soya plantations (Nicolas Villalobos / Greenpeace)

The production of chicken to be sold in UK supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food chains is destroying wildlife-rich forests in South America, Greenpeace investigators claim.

Swathes of forest are bulldozed each year to grow soya, which is used to feed poultry in the UK and the rest of the world, a report by the charity says. The land used partly includes the world’s most biodiverse savannah, the Brazilian Cerrado.

South America’s forests are home to rare wildlife species and are a major absorber of damaging greenhouse gases, so eradicating the trees accelerates the climate and biodiversity crises.

But in failing to monitor where their animal-feed crops come from, Britain’s high-street brands are “contributing to the deforestation“ – some of which is illegal, it’s claimed.

Consumers swapping red meat for chicken and other poultry are also fuelling the demand, and supermarkets and fast-food chains are pushing up sales with special offers on chicken, according to the study.

The UK imports more than 3 million tonnes of soya every year from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, official figures show, the bulk of it to feed factory-farmed animals, mostly chickens.

The report, called Winging it: How the UK’s Chicken Habit is Fuelling the Climate and Nature Emergency, says that meeting Britain’s annual demand for high-protein soya requires 1.4 million hectares of land – an area larger than Northern Ireland.

Greenpeace, which is calling on food giants to set meat-reduction targets, surveyed 23 UK supermarkets and fast-food and coffee chains about their chicken sales and soya usage. It says it found:

  • Some supermarkets are buying their soya from commodity giants including two that have been fined for trading in soya from illegally deforested areas in the Brazilian Cerrado
  • UK supermarkets account for two-thirds of the UK’s soya imports – the vast majority for chicken feed
  • Tesco alone admitted using a sixth of the UK’s soya – 99 per cent of it for animal feed 
  • Some leading supermarkets claim to support production of sustainable soya – or have a plan to switch to no-deforestation sources – but this means buying credits to offset their soya use
  • None of the companies surveyed could guarantee the soya they used for meat production was deforestation-free. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Nando’s and Subway refused to disclose their meat sales or soya use altogether

Supermarket promotions of chicken legs more than doubled last year, and price cuts trebled, according to market research by Kantar.

But a Roundtable on Sustainable Soya report, also last year, found that just 2 per cent of the UK’s imports come from zero-deforestation areas. And Greenpeace says not a single company it contacted was able to show it tracked the full amount or origin of the soya used as animal feed in its supply chain.

(Chris J Ratcliffe / Greenpeace
(Chris J Ratcliffe / Greenpeace (Chris J Ratcliffe / Greenpeace)

The Amazon is protected from further expansion for soya production by a 2006 ban but other areas with vital ecosystems such as the Cerrado and the Gran Chaco – South America’s second largest forest – are still being exploited, the report shows.

The Cerrado Manifesto, launched in 2017, calls on companies to voluntarily pledge to curb further deforestation.

Cattle ranching is also a big cause of forest loss but most Brazilian beef is consumed in the country, leaving soya “a more significant component of many countries’ deforestation footprint”.

Greenpeace UK forest campaigner Chiara Vitali said: “Consumers cutting red meat are clearly trying to do the right thing for the right reasons but supermarkets and fast-food restaurants are keeping them in the dark when it comes to the precious forests being destroyed.

“A straight swap from beef to chicken effectively amounts to outsourcing emissions of our meat consumption from the UK to South America.”

The world cannot continue to consume industrially produced meat at current levels, she said.

Analysis by the charity of EU figures suggests soya causes even more forest loss than palm oil.

Leah Riley Brown, of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: “Retailers are working together to tackle deforestation and drive greater uptake of certified sustainable soya in their supply chains.

“The BRC has publicly called on the Brazilian government to stop Amazon deforestation for soy production and is working with other stakeholders to ensure soya sources meet customer expectations on sustainability.”

A Tesco spokesman said: “We agree with Greenpeace that more must be done to stop deforestation linked to food production. This is why we will source all the soya we use as animal feed from verified zero-deforestation areas by 2025 and are leading efforts to develop the Funding for Soy Farmers in the Cerrado initiative, which will protect biodiversity by preventing any new land being cleared for soya production.”

McDonald’s said it aimed to eliminate deforestation from supply chains by 2030. “We are prioritising by the end of 2020 the raw materials our suppliers buy in greatest volume and where we can have the biggest impact: beef, chicken (including soya in feed), palm oil, coffee and the fibre in packaging. We are committed to sourcing soya for chicken feed that does not contribute to deforestation, and have identified the regions with high deforestation risks. In 2018, approximately 74 per cent of the soya used in the feed of chickens supplied to our restaurants in Europe was covered by a combination of ProTerra and Roundtable on Responsible Soy certification,” a statement said. “In 2017, we became one of the first companies to sign the statement of support for the Cerrado Manifesto.”

A Nando’s spokesperson said:​ “We’re proud that for four years, all our soya has been responsibly sourced under the Round Table on Responsible Soy, ProTerra or equivalent standards. This is not just the soya we use as an ingredient but also in our supply chain, which means we buy credits to cover the volume of soya fed to our chickens. We’re always striving to do more. In 2017, we joined over 60 companies in signing a statement of support for the Cerrado Manifesto and we’re proud to be an active member of the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya.”

A Burger King spokeswoman said most of its chicken was sourced from the UK and Europe, and only some from Brazil. “However, we hold supplier commitments that neither the poultry nor the feed it is raised on is former rainforest land. We are working with our suppliers on an ongoing basis to review the systems they have in place to ensure these accreditations can be upheld.”

A Subway spokeswoman said the chain had a sustainable soya policy. “We therefore require our franchise owners’ suppliers to comply with this policy and to continually increase the amount of RTRS-certified soya used in Subway products with the ultimate aim of achieving 100 per cent certified sustainably sourced soy by the end of 2020. The Subway brand has a zero-deforestation policy. Suppliers are required to source all raw materials from areas which haven’t been subject to deforestation, or from areas of high conservation value.”

A KFC spokesperson said it had been in touch previously with Greenpeace over the issue, and would welcome further discussion. “KFC UK and Ireland supports long-established policies against deforestation and a commitment to work with our supply chain partners to sustainably source key produce and commodities, including chicken and soya. We are actively engaged in this issue and looking at how we strengthen our policies to do all we can to eliminate deforestation risk, working with our global teams and partners such as WWF to ensure that any sourcing decisions we make are informed and sustainable ones.”

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