Source : LADO / Shuttershock

‘Dining on deforestation’: Irish meat and dairy may be linked to Amazon forest clearance

Soybeans, used in livestock feed in Ireland, were shipped by companies with links to destruction of endangered habitats in South America.

By Tommy Greene

Noteworthy logo with the design for OVERSEAS IMPACT - Large container vessel sailing in the ocean with trees in the cargo section and clouds in the sky behind.

THE CHICKEN FILLETS you pick up from the supermarket may be linked to deforestation in some of the world’s most endangered habitats.

Soy, mainly grown in South America, is shipped to Ireland in large quantities to go towards feed for Irish livestock. As an animal feed ingredient, this imported soy is a key part of many meat and dairy products that stock Ireland’s supermarket shelves.

But campaigners have warned that Ireland’s meat industry and its supermarket suppliers could, through these controversially-sourced imports, be “wrecking” the Amazon rainforest and other endangered habitats in South America.

Data obtained by Noteworthy and reports uncovering evidence of ongoing illegal deforestation in agri-food supply chains suggest Irish consumers may be “dining on deforestation” through the meat and dairy products they purchase.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soybeans are imported every year to be processed into meal and pellets that farmers buy as part of their ‘rations’ to feed Irish livestock. It creates high yields for dairy and meat production, which has led to an increasing reliance on the protein-rich legume in Irish livestock farming.

It’s estimated that over 20 million hectares of Brazil’s forest cover as a whole have been lost to soy production in the last three decades. Soy production is the second-biggest deforestation driver in Brazil.

Dr Elaine McGoff, Head of Advocacy at An Taisce, said the findings jar with a “green” and “unique” image that Ireland’s agri-food industry markets through its sustainable production “story”, which includes emphasis on grass-fed animals.

Women holding two packets of meat in front of a meat section in a supermarket. Imported soy is a key part of many meat and dairy products
Source: LADO/Shutterstock

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

‘Shoddy due diligence’ allegations

Irish supermarkets have not ruled out using controversially-sourced soy that is linked to activity driving forest loss in South America, including the Amazon.

They were approached by Noteworthy after a number of Brazilian soy shipments considered to be at significant risk of “contamination” with deforestation links were confirmed across the island. The consignments have arrived at ports across Ireland and Northern Ireland over the past eight years.

Noteworthy has also seen evidence of two Brazilian soy shipments to Ireland in August 2022 – after major supermarket retailers had pledged to remove deforestation-linked soy from their supply chains at the COP26 summit, hosted by the UK in late 2021.

In August 2022, the US grain trader giant Cargill delivered over 20,600 tonnes of soy to Ringsend, Dublin, while 70,500 tonnes were delivered by a joint–venture company involving the Brazilian firm Amaggi to Ringaskiddy in Co Cork.

Cargill was one of five firms fined by Brazil’s government in 2018 over their role in illegal deforestation for soy production. The company is also facing legal action in the US for its Brazilian soy operations, having been accused of “shoddy due diligence” on alleged deforestation and rights violations.

Amaggi has pledged to eliminate deforestation from its operations by 2025. However, a Repórter Brasil investigation last year showed that the company continued to purchase soy from farms linked with deforestation in the Amazon and its sister biome, the Cerrado savanna.

Cargill has also committed to completely remove deforestation from its Brazilian soy supply chains by 2025.

But reports by AidEnvironment in August and September found new evidence that farmers and companies supplying both Cargill and Amaggi are responsible for widespread forest clearance in the Amazon and other endangered Brazilian habitats across 2022 and 2023.

The activity has resulted in tens of thousands of hectares of priority habitats being cleared and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted.

Cargill and Amaggi were approached by Noteworthy over the reports’ findings.

Amaggi disputed links made between it and suppliers highlighted in the reports. A spokesperson said the company “recognizes the importance of protecting forests and native vegetation in all biomes, especially the Amazon and Cerrado.

“In line with this, it has a public commitment to achieve a conversion and deforestation free chain by 2025 in all biomes, especially the Amazon and Cerrado.” The spokesperson added that Amaggi “does not purchase grains from areas deforested with soy after 2008 in the Amazon biome.”

Soybeans are legumes but they are also classed as feed grains – primarily used for animals. Food grains like wheat and rice are primarily for human consumption.

Cargill did not respond to Noteworthy in time for publication to queries on the case studies highlighted in AidEnvironment’s report.

But a company spokesperson said: “Cargill is putting [in] all the efforts to reach a more transparent Supply Chain and eliminate deforestation and land conversion in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay by 2025.”

Food systems ‘wrecking’ endangered habitats

Information obtained by the Data Desk investigative consultancy points to a number of Cargill and Amaggi shipments having carried soy loads from Brazil to Belfast and the Foyle Port in Derry between 2015 and 2023.

A number of these shipments set out originally from Argentina, while some consignments that set out from Brazil first unloaded in Liverpool before travelling to Northern Ireland.

Considerable quantities of soybeans processed in Northern Ireland are used as animal feed in Ireland.

Dr Elaine McGoff wearing a jacket with the quote - Unsustainable grain imports are driving environmental destruction

McGoff told Noteworthy that the findings underlined how reliant Ireland’s food systems are on “unsustainable imports of grain”, which are “wrecking” and “driving environmental destruction” in one of the world’s most crucial endangered habitats.

“This emphasises how the Irish food system, as well as driving environmental destruction within Ireland, is also driving environmental destruction in ecologically-important areas like the Amazon,” she said.

“The Irish government and agribusiness love telling this story about how we have this unique, grass-based system and it’s all very natural. But intensive dairy and other [kinds of] intensive livestock farming requires grain imports like this, and that’s a part of the story that’s never talked about.

“And the implications of that, both from a social justice and an environmental point of view, should be top of people’s minds when they’re choosing what food they’re eating.”

Action taken by some supermarkets

Major retailers and their suppliers are increasingly under the microscope as Europe tightens its rules around commodities and products like soy, where deforestation can be a sourcing issue.

The EU’s new regulations, which will take effect towards the end of 2024, ban the importing of soy where deforestation and forest conversion are found in its production. Companies face potential fines of up to 4% of their EU turnover for non-compliance.

Ireland’s biggest supermarkets were asked by Noteworthy whether they are aware that any of the products they sell may have used the imported soy or other soy that risks driving deforestation in some of the planet’s most vital ecosystems.

None responded directly to questions relating to these imports, but some supermarkets did outline actions taken to limit “at-risk” Brazilian soy entering the supply chains for the products they sell.

“We achieved our goal of zero deforestation in our sourcing of soy by 2020 through certification,” a Tesco spokesperson said.

“However we know there is more to do, so we set an additional target to ensure that not only is our soy from certified zero deforestation sources, but that it will come from whole areas and regions that are verified as deforestation free by 2025.”

Tesco added that it has put pressure on suppliers in the Cerrado – “from where we source the majority of our Brazilian soy­­­­­­”, Tesco said – to improve monitoring, verification and reporting systems in order to remove links with deforestation in the region.

A hen and cock eating grain from a trough inside a barn. Imported soybeans are used as an ingredient in animal feed
Source: sergey kolesnikov/Shutterstock

Irish supermarkets and their suppliers also listed their membership of a number of industry initiatives to do this for soy. These include the Cerrado Manifesto, the UK Soy Manifesto and the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association.

Some conceded that South American soy in the supply chains for the products they sell may be linked to deforestation. None, however, would say whether they have or continue to stock and sell meat or dairy products that have used high-risk Brazilian soy from Cargill or Amaggi.

A spokesperson for Musgrave, which owns SuperValu and Centra, welcomed the tightening of EU rules on imported soy. The spokesperson said:

We know that soy sourced from South America can be linked to deforestation.

“And we are working with our suppliers to ensure that soy sourced from this region is not connected to deforestation,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Lidl said: “We take our corporate due diligence responsibilities very seriously… Looking specifically at soy as a critical raw material, our primary focus is on the use of soy as animal feed and, wherever possible, we support European soy production that has been Europe Soya certified.”

Aldi said: “We are doing all we can to reduce our impact on the environment, and source our products responsibly”, adding that: “We ensure to apply learnings from all industry initiatives to our Irish supply chain.”

Dunnes Stores did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Cross-border import fears

Tesco also told Noteworthy it requires support from “suppliers, industry, NGOs and governments” in order to hit its pledge to remove deforestation-linked soy from its supply chains by 2025.

A spokesperson for Tesco said this commitment for the imported soy used in its UK food products “is shared by Tesco Ireland with soy imported into the Irish market.”

But the environmental NGO Mighty Earth warned that, if supermarkets like Tesco continue to stock and sell food products using Cargill’s Brazilian soy, they risk reneging on these industry pledges – meaning their customers could continue to be “dining on deforestation”.

A nine-month investigation it published earlier this year established a case of Brazilian deforestation linked to chicken and pork products sold on Tesco shelves at its UK stores.

The NGO said that, despite promising its supply chains will be deforestation-free by 2025, Tesco and other supermarkets’ goals would be unachievable if they continue to do business with meat producers who use Cargill soy.

“It’s clear Cargill will only deliver deforestation-free goods to its customers when there is a legal mandate to do so,” said Gemma Hoskins, Mighty Earth’s UK senior director.

A number of people with native headdresses walk beside a digger with Cargill signs attached to it. A large globe is being held by protesters in the background. Protest against Cargill at the annual Free Land Camp outside the Brazilian Congress
Source: Tommy Greene

During the final days of COP28, the UK government announced long-promised anti-deforestation laws and the UN set out its first 2050 roadmap for food and farming at the final weekend of the conference.

But the secondary legislation, which sets a lower bar than the incoming EU anti-deforestation laws by failing to ban various kinds of legal deforestation, may create a compliance headache for Ireland’s agri-food sector.

This regulatory divergence has prompted fears that non-compliant soy under Brussels’ new regime could enter EU markets by crossing Ireland’s land border, once it enters the UK and is processed in Northern Ireland.

Considerable quantities of soybeans that are processed in Northern Ireland are thought to be used across the island of Ireland each year.

More than 350,000 tonnes of soy were imported to Northern Ireland in 2022 and it exported 140,000 tonnes of processed animal feed – including soy-based feed – during that same time.

Hoskins added that in order to avoid import compliance problems in Ireland, the UK regulations need to be brought “in line with the EU[’s] to ensure not only that the UK doesn’t become a leakage market for legally deforested commodities like soy, but that UK businesses are better able to meet the requirements for its biggest export customer – the EU.

Whilst Cargill claims 100% traceability of their Brazilian soy, the continued cases of deforestation linked to their soy suppliers suggests otherwise.

“Cargill will need to implement significant improvements to its current, inadequate due diligence systems in order to meet the legal requirements in both UK and EU law,” said Hoskins.

When Noteworthy put this to Cargill, our team did not receive a response to our query in time for publication.

A Cargill spokesperson did say it has suspended its supplier relationship with the Santa Ana farm, situated in the Mato Grosso state of Brazil, which was highlighted as a direct supplier to Cargill in Mighty Earth’s investigation. Satellite imagery has shown 635 hectares of deforestation at the site – including 400 hectares of Amazon forest burned during a few days in September 2022.

“In May 2021, we suspended our supplier relationship with the farm in question,” Cargill said.

Soybean plants - green leafy with upright stems - in a field. Soybean plantation within the Cerrado biome in Brazil - the most biodiverse savanna in the world
Source: Paulo Carvalho

‘No sustainability status’

Meanwhile, securing reliable sourcing information can prove a difficult task for many purchasers of this soy in Ireland.

Donal Sheehan, a dairy farmer in County Cork and member of the Biodiversity Regeneration in a Dairying Environment project, told Noteworthy that sourcing information is “not readily available” to purchasers.

“There’d be no sustainability status behind it whatsoever,” he said.

“It’s shocking, really. One of my suppliers wasn’t able to say anything other than they got it from the boat in Limerick. And after that, she wasn’t prepared to go any further – it was too much hassle.”

He added that only one of the various suppliers he uses was able to provide him with sourcing information on the most recent ration he had bought. But this information “was very difficult” to obtain and his supplier spent a week going “through the hoops to get it”.

Sheehan said he was only able to get this data because it was sought on the back of a purchase order.

I asked him where the previous ration came from. And not a hope in hell. Tracing that would be detectives’ work.

He added that the considerable downstream carbon emissions involved in shipping soy and grains from South America are not currently considered when measuring the carbon footprints of farms like his.

Soy also raises nitrogen emissions in livestock, which are increasingly becoming a problem for Irish dairy farmers.

Sheehan said that concerns with imported soy had been raised briefly at a Teagasc biodiversity conference in 2015, but that it appears little movement has taken place within the sector since then to address sustainable sourcing issues with imported feed ingredients.

“There’s no one, including the supermarkets, who are supplying milk that’s sustainably sourced,” he said.

When asked what it has done since the 2015 conference, a spokesperson for Teagasc said that the amount of soya used in the diets of Irish cattle and sheep “is small relative to other ingredients in concentrate rations [supplementary feed] and relative to overall diet where grass and grass silage are the main components”.

According to statistics collected as part of Noteworthy’s Against the Grain investigation, Ireland’s annual soya imports for animal feed have risen by more than 55% over the last decade – from around 835,000 tonnes in 2012 to 1.3 million tonnes in 2022.

Our team also asked Teagasc about issues with securing information on the source of soy imported to Ireland. A spokesperson did not directly answer this query but again said that “grazed grass can meet most animal’s protein requirements for most of the year”.

The spokesperson also referred to the Department of Agriculture’s protein aid scheme which provides farmers an incentive to grow crops including soybeans as well as Teagasc’s protein strategy which aims to “increase the amount of protein crops to be grown in Ireland” to 20,000 hectares.

The Irish Farmers’ Association was also contacted for comment but no response was received by Noteworthy before publication.

Want to know more? Today, the investigative team at The Detail are also delving into soy imports – focusing on Northern Ireland. Read here >>

Overseas Impact

Are Irish companies profiting at the expense of endangered ecosystems?

Design for OVERSEAS IMPACT - Large container vessel sailing in the ocean with trees in the cargo section and clouds in the sky behind

By Tommy Greene for Noteworthy

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This project was funded by our readers alongside support from our investigative fund.

What’s next? We also want to investigate if Irish dairy exports are hurting African farming communities. Help fund this work >>

   Search for Proposals