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More EU protectionism claimed as saving the planet only sustains the damage

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AS IS USUAL with such matters you probably did not know that last year the European Commission proposed a new law to halt deforestation and minimise the EU’s impact on forests worldwide. Sure, the UK is not in the EU anymore, but it’s not as if that made us any more aware of new laws beginning their journey from the offices of Brussels’ technocrats to our domestic statutes.

And of course, until our government changes its mindset to do things differently from the EU we shall continue to lazily adopt their norms irrespective of whether or not they are appropriate to us. The new law has now gone before the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health & Food Safety Committee and (naturally) received its approval by 60 votes to 2. It will now go before the full Parliament, where it will most certainly be rubber-stamped – and the Commission shall then negotiate final details with member states before its introduction. Let me into you a secret – it will pass.

All of this is important because – like so many things that come out of the EU legislative process – it will have unintended consequences – and risks making the situation it is trying to alleviate far worse.

The new law is aimed at preventing beef, palm oil and other products that cannot deny a link to deforestation from being sold in the EU single market. Not without cause, campaigners and critics have highlighted that the impact assessment reveals “significant omissions” in the plans, including the exclusion of endangered grasslands and wetlands, as well as obvious products that raise environmental concerns, such as rubber and maize. In other words, it appears to be virtue signalling because it is neither comprehensive or even justly targeted.

Recent investigations by Global Witness shows for the first time EU demand for rubber is the most important contributor to Europe’s deforestation footprint across west and Central Africa deforestation. But don’t look for that to be included in the legislation. Rubber is too important to EU manufacturers and, guess what, there is no rubber manufactured in the EU (there’s a clue there).

Here’s the story. The EU is the second-largest destination market for forest and ecosystem risk commodities (FERCs) after China. EU consumption is cited as currently responsible for around 10% of global deforestation: every year on that basis the EU causes around 72,900 square kilometres of forest loss – an area the size of Ireland. Yes, Ireland. And it is the EU’s demand for meat that’s driving global deforestation. According to the US Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute the average per capita meat consumption per person in the EU countries is 77.1 kilograms, almost twice as much as the world’s average (38.7 kilograms).

With such information, surely the EU’s attempt to limit imports to food products only approved as not causing deforestation is a good thing? Well, it could be if that’s what it does – but typically the EU’s proposals do not achieve what they claim they set out to do.

The reality is that under the pretence of stopping imported deforestation, the EU is furthering its own protectionist agenda. It does this by very conveniently ignoring imported commodities that are causing deforestation and the regions that are affected the most by the EU imports. Instead, the EU’s proposed law focuses on commodities that can affect its Member states’ domestic industries.

By seeking to manipulate the market and not treat all commodities equally (especially if they are certified sustainable) then low (oil) yielding crops such as rapeseed will require more land than high-yield crops such as palm oil and thus encourage greater deforestation.

The answer is simple, seek certification of sustainability rather than random and arbitrary choices by EU technocrats and include overseas food products that compete with EU-grown foods so that the consumer can decide.

Environmental campaigners without any pro- or anti-EU axe to grind, oblivious to the Brexit debate, have highlighted the EU is getting it wrong. They criticised the exclusion from the proposals of rubber, leather, maize and other kinds of meat, such as linking pigs and chickens to “embedded deforestation” through the use of soy as animal feed. Similarly, the fragile Cerrado grasslands and the Pantanal wetlands, both under threat from soy and beef exploitation, have been excluded.

Earlier, under the disguise of environmentalism and climate impact, the EU introduced its ‘Farm-to-Fork’ strategy that promotes national agri-food products and discourages imported products – obviously this is outright protectionist.

Consider these facts:

Facts on deforestation in South America

  • More than half of the Cerrado, the most biodiverse savannah in the world, has already been cleared, mainly to make room for soy and beef production. In 2019, EU imports of beef from the Cerrado accounted for 26% of the EU’s total imported beef and almost one fifth of the beef exports from the region.
  • In November 2021, when EU outlined a draft law requiring companies to prove that agricultural commodities destined for the bloc were not linked to deforestation, its proposals “left out” fragile ecosystems such as Brazil’s Cerrado.
  • Brazil is the single biggest exporter of agricultural goods to the EU, which in turn is the largest foreign direct investor in the Brazilian economy. A report released in 2020 found up to one-fifth of EU soy imports and 17% of beef imports from Brazil may be linked to deforestation.

Why palm oil above others?

  • The palm oil industry has been persecuted more than any other because of its past links to deforestation. Even though 90% of palm oil imported into the EU is now certified sustainable and residual deforestation has fallen to a four-year low, the EU has consistently created barriers for south-east Asia farm holders to protect its own local vegetable-oil industry.
  • In addition, policymakers in the EU have always ignored the fact that palm oil is way more sustainable than any other vegetable oil. Oil yields for palm per hectare are almost 6-10 times that of other oilseeds such as rapeseed, soybean, olive, or sunflower. To replace palm oil would mean nine times more land allocation to produce a similar amount of oil from these alternative crops.
  • University of Bath scientists showed in Nature Sustainability that banning palm oil could drive greater rates of deforestation, by switching demand to less efficient edible oils like sunflower or rapeseed which use more land, water and fertiliser.

Comparative food products’ poor performance

  • In comparison with other commodities such as soy, cattle products, rubber, cocoa and coffee – companies producing palm oil have made the most progress on deforestation – yet are singled out for restrictions.
  • Beef and soy production are driving more than two-thirds of the recorded habitat loss in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado regions and Argentina and Paraguay’s Gran Chaco region. Demand for soy is closely connected to demand for beef and other animal proteins. Between 70% and 75% of all soy becomes livestock feed – for chickens, pigs, and farmed fish, as well as for cows.

Facts on deforestation in rubber supply chain

  • Global Witness report highlights that even though the EU’s demand for rubber is the biggest driver of deforestation in west and Central Africa, the EU excluded the commodity in its recent proposed law to halt deforestation. The EU imports 30% of all rubber shipped by Africa’s top producers, worth 12 times more than its imports of restricted goods such as Palm Oil from the same region.
  • Analysis of satellite imagery and trade data shows for the first time that EU demand for rubber is the most important contributor to Europe’s deforestation footprint across west and Central Africa deforestation in tropical forests across Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria.

According to a report by the USDA, as a result of the F-2-F strategy, the number of people suffering from food insecurity globally is expected to rise by 22 million, in part because developing countries will struggle to comply with the new EU standards.

The EU has been consistently targeting the Palm Oil industry saying it is driving deforestation in south-east Asia even though 90% of the palm oil consumed or imported in the EU is actually sustainably sourced. Why this attitude? Simple, the constant targeting of palm oil is driven by the European vegetable oil producers’ lobby.

France, one of the leading producers of rapeseed oil and currently holding the Presidency of the EU, has been pushing these laws to protect its domestic rapeseed oil industry.  With the EU, it always comes back to protectionism under the guise of environmentalism or some other virtue of the moment.

Do not be fooled by EU bans – they are designed to protect their producer interests – in this case its farmers – not those of the consumer or the world.

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