Former minister slams government as analysis by Trase for Global Witness reveals the legislation has failed to prevent deforestation

Monday, 6th November 2023, London - Imports such as beef, soy and palm oil linked to the destruction of an area of tropical forest almost twice the size of Paris have flooded UK markets in the last two years, according to new research by Global Witness and Trase, as the UK government failed to introduce supporting legislation to stop the import of deforestation-linked products.

Despite the introduction of legislation almost two years ago that established a ban on the use of commodities produced on illegally deforested land abroad, this law has not yet entered into force because Defra has failed to publish the list of the commodities covered by the regime.

The findings come just days before the two-year anniversary of the signing of the legislation – known as the UK Environment Act – on 9 November 2021.

Zac Goldsmith, former Minister for the Environment, said:We passed the Environment Act with much fanfare, not least so we could present ourselves as a world leader at COP26 which we hosted in Glasgow in 2021. And it was a genuinely landmark law to cut illegal deforestation caused by commodity production from our supply chains. But there has been virtually no progress since the law passed and not a single tropical tree has yet been saved.

“It should go without saying that there is no solution to climate change, indeed there is no future for our species, if we fail to halt the loss of the world’s great forests. So the government needs to stop with the delays and u-turns and get on with it.”

The new investigation analyses the UK’s direct import of seven ‘forest risk’ commodities associated with deforestation, including palm oil, soy, and cattle products, which carry the highest risk of coming from deforested areas.

Of the estimated total 20,400 ha of deforestation linked to UK imports between Nov 2021 and July 2023, 8,800 ha were estimated to be linked to palm oil, 3,470 ha to soy, and 2,950 ha to cattle products. These figures are very likely to be a significant underestimate, as they only related to the importation of raw commodities and exclude processed products that include forest-risk ingredients, such as chocolate.

Major UK retailers last month urged the UK government to urgently match the EU’s new deforestation regulation, which covers all major commodities and requires companies to prove that their goods have not been produced on land that has been deforested after 2020.

Alex Sobel MP, who sat on the Environment Bill Committee, said:"This government’s delays have left UK retailers publicly crying out for the law they need to achieve their net zero targets and get deforestation off our shelves.

“We can - and must - source our food sustainably to protect our planet and combat climate change at the same time. Every inch of tropical forest we lose contributes to the carbon emissions that are rapidly heating our planet, which ultimately drives food prices up."

The UK’s approach also has been criticised for covering only illegal deforestation and offering very limited human rights protections, in comparison to the EU’s regime.

Veronica Oakeshott, Head of the Forest Campaign at Global Witness, said:"For two years, the government has been dithering about which deforestation-causing commodities to include in these regulations. In this time, tropical forests have continued to be destroyed to grow crops and graze cattle. And some of that product ends up for sale in the UK. This delay is tainting the UK public’s products – from the beef on our dinner plates to the palm oil in our shampoo.

“The government must listen to UK retailers and fully align with the EU's deforestation regulation, which covers all forest-risk commodities. It is outrageous that Defra is failing to press the green light on simple regulations needed to stop the UK importation of forest destruction. If the UK wants to be seen as climate leader, it must act now."

Overall, the research found that almost three quarters of the total destruction occurred in the tropical forests of Indonesia and Brazil – home to ecosystems vital in the fight against climate change.

The top six producer countries associated with this deforestation are Indonesia (7,840 ha), Brazil (7,310 ha), Papua New Guinea (1,020 ha), Malaysia (968 ha), Colombia (873 ha), and Ivory Coast (852 ha). Together, these countries make up more than 90% of the UK’s potential deforestation exposure linked to direct imports.