How to identify and avoid deforestation in your supply chain

Image credit: Getty Images

Deforestation and forest fires have recently caused global outrage. Alarmism can be a useful tool for change but only if it is accompanied by action. Companies now have access to the means and technology necessary to make a change. Provenance proposes how.

Food production is responsible for 25 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of GHG emissions, similar to the transport sector.

It’s only logical that when accounting for food production grown on deforested land, the emissions increase substantially when compared to production that respects natural habitats. For instance, so called ‘high impact’ beef can be up to 6 times worse in terms of GHG emissions than silvo-pastured – combination of trees and pasture – raised beef.

Carbon impact of food

Image credit: BBC

To avoid deforestation and reduce the environmental impact of food production, brands and companies need to better understand how their sourcing decisions influence the matter.

So how do you go about making a difference?

1. Supply chain mapping

First off, if you don’t already know where you buy your raw ingredients or materials, it’s important to start mapping out your supply chain. Unfortunately, there is no quick technology fix for this. It comes down to the sheer hard work of building relationships with your suppliers (and their suppliers). Ask the right questions. Cut out the middlemen when you can. Opt for direct trade where possible.

You don’t need to have 100% traceability to each individual farm, but a minimum level of supply chain knowledge is required to properly assess risks and make decisions. 

If you don’t know where to start or don’t have the capacity to do this internally, the supply chain expert team at Provenance can help.

2. Risk analysis and setting your strategy

Secondly, you’ll want to conduct a risk analysis based on macro-level data and research. We recommend picking your key ‘at risk’ ingredients/materials/commodities.

While beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products drive the majority of tropical deforestation, coffee, rubber, cocoa, and sugar all have a strong history of being linked to deforestation and still do today.

Once you’ve picked your key commodities and defined your ambition you’ll want to focus on the key markets that pose the greatest risk first. Countries that have shown significant deforestation over the last couple of decades include Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of sub-saharan Africa, as well as parts of Eastern Europe.

Image credit: GRID-Arendal

Having identified and prioritised the primary risks, you’ll want to get slightly more specific and align your traceability goals with the riskiest regions – with the latest available satellite and research data. It’s important to consider the reasons why deforestation occurs. Being able to support local communities with poverty alleviation initiatives and access to alternatives that cover basic needs, e.g. energy sources for cooking or heating is key.

You may also want to make public commitments and outline your targets. Taking leadership publicly may encourage your suppliers to collaborate or join suit. Many companies have opted to make “no deforestation” commitments in their supply chains. The Accountability Framework has a very holistic definition and guidance for no deforestation commitments which also include financial investments that do not cause or contribute to deforestation. If you want to push the agenda forwards encompassing this and following their guidance for communicating and reporting on your commitments is the way to go.

Provenance can support you with setting your strategy, refining your commitments as well as communicating these with integrity.

3. Monitoring and verification

Now we come to the important part, verifying that the suppliers you buy from are indeed protecting the world’s forests. This can take two different forms: either verification from the sky (using satellite data) and verification from the ground (via traditional audits, partner NGOs or innovative mobile apps for farmers/smallholders). 

When it comes to the first method, Global Forest Watch (GFW) set-up by the World Resources Institute, is a good free tool to get started with. They have a paid version, GFW Pro, which is currently being used by Cargill, Mondelez and Unilever, to name a few. However, differences in between tree cover gain and tree cover loss methodologies can, at times, make it difficult to use. Nevertheless, if you have a rough idea of the geographic location of the farms you source from, GFW can help you pinpoint problem areas and help you benchmark your suppliers. Accuracy and quality of images unfortunately remains a key issue. Starling Verification – born out of a collaboration between the Earthworm Foundation and Airbus – aims to bring more accuracy to the analysis with 1.5m SPOT images and radar that cuts through cloud cover. This is especially relevant in areas with consistent cloud cover – allowing for more precise all year-round monitoring. Ecometrica also offers advanced forest monitoring solutions and may be worth looking into.

With our partners, Farm-Trace we are attempting to refine analysis of satellite imagery, using machine learning, and when mapped to specific GPS farm perimeter coordinates (find out more here). Which brings us to our next point.

In order to balance and triangulate the data collection it is very beneficial to conduct verification on the ground. Several Provenance partners can support you with transparency at the first mile which includes mapping out individual farms with smartphone apps (with offline capabilities) providing precise GPS coordinates and on-the-ground observations (which are both time-stamped and geo-located for added authenticity). This is particularly helpful to ensure issues are correctly attributed to the right suppliers.

A combination of both approaches builds very precise, accurate and actionable insights on what has and is truly happening with regards to tree cover change in near real-time. With this, you can then exclude certain suppliers or decide to work with them on better sustainability measures. Wilmar articulates this balanced approach particularly well.

4. Going a step further

Once you’ve set your strategy and started to implement monitoring and verification strategies, Provenance software can help you communicate your progress to the outside world with integrity. As we wrote previously, companies should not be marking their own homework. In other words, having an external party validating and structuring your communications can be incredibly powerful for building consumer and investor trust. 

By reporting publicly on your no deforestation (or no conversion) commitments using the Provenance platform, you can start to make statements with confidence both at a business and product level. By combining this data to individual batches of products in a segregated supply chain you may even be able to call your products ‘deforestation-free’ with confidence or talk about regenerative farming practices where applicable, offering a new level of differentiation in an increasingly crowded market of certifications and environmental claims.

Finally, if doing it for environmental reasons weren’t enough, it can often make business sense to combine farming with good forest management. As an example coffee which is grown below 1800m is often of better quality if ‘shade grown’, in other words if it benefits from natural tree cover. And silvopasture-raised meat typically has access to a higher diversity of forage, which can improve nutrition.

Citizens of tomorrow will no longer buy from companies that do not take responsibility for our planet today. Taking action is no longer optional.