Thousands of species put at risk by UK demand for imports

A land area almost the size of UK is needed to produce enough commodities to sustain the nation’s demand. Campaigners fear that the destruction of nature is raising the 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 the nation’s annual demand for products such as palm oil, timber, soy and cocoa, writes a statement from the UK bird protection organisation RSPB. This increases the threat of extinction of some 2,800 species.

Data shows that nearly a third 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. This is partly driven by UK Government policy shifts, including a move towards renewable energy, according to the statement.

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 in the statement: “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.”

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive at the RSPB, added: “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 ‘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.

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.

Photo credit: Kate Evans for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), flickr/Creative Commons

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