This Earth Day, it's time we face the fact that what and how we consume drives deforestation of climate-critical forests as well as human rights abuses against workers and forest peoples. From coffee and chocolate bars to the palm oil found in soap, traces of deforestation hide in many of our most ubiquitous products.
Many agribusiness companies cultivate an image of family-owned farms feeding the world in harmony with nature. But globally, industrial agriculture is the most significant driver of deforestation, responsible for more than 46 million hectares of forest loss from 2013 to 2019. And deforestation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.
Much of industrial agriculture is rife with rights abuses and environmental degradation. Among the abuses Human Rights Watch has documented in a number of countries are exploitative labor conditions – including forced and child labor, contamination of communities’ water sources, and dangerous air pollution – workers’ and communities’ exposure to toxic pesticides, and forced displacement of rural communities as their lands are converted to plantations and pastures.
Cattle rearing is by far the worst offender regarding climate impact. Forested areas are cleared to make room for ranches, and cows themselves are a major source of methane, a planet-warming gas. Climate scientists have referred to meat as “the single food with the greatest impact on the environment.”
Two fundamental shifts are needed.
Industrial agriculture is heavily subsidized by governments. A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found half of agriculture subsidies are “inequitable and harmful to both the environment and global food security.” At a minimum, these subsidies should be conditional on companies performing sustainably and meeting their human rights responsibilities, including respecting the rights of forest peoples.
Second, major markets of agricultural commodities should adopt legislation that restricts the imports of agricultural commodities associated with deforestation. There’s reason for hope: the United Kingdom has already introduced such legislation, the European Union approved a similar law this week, and lawmakers in the United States introduced a similar bill in Congress. China remains an important market missing from this list.
We all need to ensure the global trade in commodities doesn’t exacerbate the climate crisis and respects the rights of workers, forest peoples, and others affected, while providing equitable and sufficient access to food for all.