‘How can we achieve deforestation-free and sustainable soy in European production and import?’ Many businesses working with soy ask themselves this question as they already struggle with monitoring legal compliance. Three interrelated reports by IUCN NL show that robust and ambitious sustainability standards avoid illegality in the soy trade chain and support farmers in more responsible ways of producing. Here’s why compliance with deforestation-free sustainability standards, combined with additional support in risk landscapes, is crucial for the European market to clean up its business.

Header photo by: Jan Gilhuis, Solidaridad

Legal deforestation and conversion

The European feed sector currently promotes a stepwise approach to responsible soy in Europe, trying to achieve legal compliance. Instead of setting the bar to deforestation-free, the sector first focuses on banning illegal deforestation. The IUCN NL report ‘An analysis of existing laws on forest protection in the main soy producing countries in Latin America‘ shows what legal compliance means for protecting forests and ecosystems in the main Latin American countries of origin for European soy: Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

‘While the forest and environmental laws offer some protection indeed, still more than 110 million hectares can be legally deforested for soy, beef production or other in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay,’ says Marianne Hilders, senior expert at IUCN NL. The impact on nature by legal conversion is even higher if we consider other ecosystems, such as grassland and wetlands. ‘A focus on achieving no illegal deforestation may therefore be time and money lost in the context of the climate and zero deforestation challenges’.

Robust criteria and control

‘There is an additional reason to choose for deforestation-free certification options,’ says Heleen van den Hombergh, senior expert agro commodities at IUCN NL. ’We commissioned a benchmark of soy standards to help guide European buyers and governments in their choice-making. Self-evidently, legal compliance is a part of responsible sourcing. Yet, since we commissioned the three studies at the same time, we found that certification systems such as RTRS that do not allow for deforestation and conversion tend to show greater awareness about the need for transparency of their certification locations and the need for robust control. Both aspects are of crucial importance to avoid illegality.’

The European feed sector has an important role to play to draw a minimum line. ‘The benchmark shows that the standards allowed now under the FEFAC Soy Sourcing Guidelines show a large variation when it comes to criteria to protect forests and other ecosystems, and the way control of their implementation is assured,’ Van den Hombergh states. ‘Of the deforestation free standards, RTRS has the strongest level of assurance. ISCC Plus scores slightly higher when it comes to conservation criteria. Donau/Europe Soy, CRS and SFAP-Non Conversion, followed by Pro Terra provide good to reasonable quality on both aspects (conservation criteria and control). Yet, on level of assurance aspects all standards can still improve.’

Opportunity to tackle two issues at once

By choosing deforestation-free standards with a good level of assurance, the sector is able to tackle two issues at once: these standards can be effective in controlling legal compliance, while they also contribute to promoting deforestation-free responsible production. ‘In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and the climate challenges of our time, we therefore encourage the sector and government alike to step up their game by going for deforestation-free options and making legal compliance in landscapes part of the effort,’ Van den Hombergh concludes. ‘Actively reaching out to forest risk landscapes, by buying credits from farmers who make a difference in these landscapes is an important market sign, especially if this is done in combination with additional support.’

Deforestation for European soy: too little control

The recently released European Soy Monitor, commissioned by IUCN NL and the Initiative for Sustainable Trade (IDH) shows that Europe used about 12% of the global soy production in 2017. This soy use had a footprint of 14 million hectares of land use. Based on available information, the report shows that only 22% of European soy use was compliant with one of the 18 standards advised by the European Feed Industry, under the so-called FEFAC Soy Sourcing Guidelines. These guidelines require control of legality of deforestation and have a number of additional requirements. According to the Monitor, only 13% of European soy use was covered by deforestation-free standards, standards that require no deforestation and often also no conversion of other natural habitats such as grasslands. NB: according to the latest consolidated figures from Pro Terra this may go up to 15-16 %. Still: less than a fifth of all European use.

All these numbers show insufficient progress: a low level of verified legal compliance, a low level of verified deforestation-free.

Van den Hombergh: ‘The effort to clean up the soy business really needs to be stepped up. By traders, feed industry, retailers, and financial institutions and last but not least by government. For IUCN NL the numbers demonstrate that both the financial sector and European government need to use their leverage more strongly to require transparency and sustainability norms in soy production and trade’.

Towards deforestation-free soy

IUCN NL supports the transition to deforestation-free and sustainable soy. The three reports are meant to provide valuable input to companies, financial institutions, government representatives and NGOs who seek to step up their efforts in Europe and elsewhere.

IUCN NL initiated the Dutch Soy Platform Initiative and is advisor to the Amsterdam Declaration Partnership and the worldwide Syntegration effort for sustainable soy. IUCN advocates for legislation in Europe to require responsible deforestation-free agrocommodities.