A land area almost the size of UK needed to produce enough commodities to sustain the nation’s demand

By Jenna Hutber

Thursday 21 May 2020

As research shows growth in UK’s land footprint, campaigners call for action amid fears that destruction of nature is raising risk of the next pandemic

New research shows the UK uses a land area overseas nearly as big as the whole of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to satisfy our annual demand for products such as palm oil, timber, soy and cocoa – increasing the threat of extinction of some 2,800 species.


Emerging findings from ‘Riskier Business - The UK’s Overseas Land Footprint’, co-produced by WWF and RSPB, also reveal a 15% growth in the UK’s land footprint overseas, in comparison with our previous study of 2011-15, linked to the imports of seven key agricultural and forest commodities.  


As landmark legislation on environment and agriculture progresses in the UK, the two leading charities are urging the UK Government to remove deforestation from supply chains and ensure that trade deals in the aftermath of Covid-19 do not contribute to habitat destruction and climate change. 


The data shows nearly a third (28%) of the UK’s total overseas land footprint is still linked to countries assessed to be at high or very high risk of deforestation, destruction of other natural ecosystems and human rights abuses. These include Brazil, Indonesia and the Ivory Coast. 


The UK’s land footprint for timber saw the biggest overseas surge, increasing threefold since 2011, to 8.4 million hectares - an area bigger than Scotland. This is partly driven by UK Government policy shifts, including a move towards renewable energy. Though well-intended, these policies fail in sufficiently assessing the carbon impacts of biofuels. 


The study also finds the majority of all palm oil (89%), soy (65%) and cocoa (63%) imported to the UK comes from countries with high deforestation rates – and therefore there is a risk that these are associated with the destruction of biodiversity hotspots such as the Amazon, and forests in Indonesia and West Africa - home to endangered species including the giant anteater, orangutan and the pygmy hippopotamus, respectively.  


Tanya Steele, Chief Executive at WWF, said:   

 “The hidden cost of the food we eat and the things we buy is all too often the destruction of nature overseas, threatening our climate and human health. Every hectare cleared brings us in closer contact with wild animals and risks a new global pandemic.   


“We can only truly improve UK environmental standards if we stop importing food that causes deforestation elsewhere. As we begin the process of recovery from the pandemic, we urgently need a legal duty on companies to cut these activities out of their supply chains, and we can’t sign up to trade deals that have habitat destruction baked in. If we don’t take these measures, we are just starting the timer on the next global health crisis.”  


Beccy Speight, Chief Executive at the RSPB, said:  

“It is easy to feel distant from the destruction of forests thousands of miles away. But the global pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the fact that when we destroy nature, we gamble with human health.  


“If we are serious about rebuilding a brighter future, we need new laws to ensure that companies can prove their supply chains are not putting us all at risk.  


“The greatest crisis this country has faced since WW2 has physically cut us off from each other. For many, nature has become a link to the outside world and a source of solace. The links between thriving nature habitats and our mental wellbeing have never been more obvious. We cannot afford to underestimate the value of nature. Neither can we turn a blind eye to the power our choices, as a society, an economy and as individuals, have to change the world for the better.” 


The ‘Riskier Business’ report provides a snapshot of the environmental risks linked to the UK trade from 2016 to 2018 in soy; palm oil; cocoa; beef and leather; pulp and paper; timber; and natural rubber. It finds that since the original ‘Risky Business’ report was published in 2017, the UK has failed to address the impact of its overseas land footprint, which is still growing. And despite global commitments to stop international supply chains driving the destruction of nature, little progress has been made.


The new report follows the publication of the Global Resource Initiative Task Force recommendations for tackling the UK’s overseas environmental footprint, to which the Government has yet to respond.  


Ahead of the Environment Bill’s return to parliament, WWF and RSPB are calling on the UK government to respond to the taskforce recommendations and remove deforestation from commodities supply chains through a mandatory due diligence obligation. This world-leading ‘mandatory due diligence’ amendment would require UK businesses to prove their supply chains are not wrecking the planet. The charities are also calling for the Environment Bill to include a target for the UK’s global footprint, and for an amendment to deal with deforestation caused by conversion of the world’s forests to produce food and other crops for our consumption. 

Tagged with: