Don't Cut Those Trees — Big Food Might Be Watching

Jul 31, 2019
Originally published on August 1, 2019 5:12 am

Brazilian scientists are reporting a sharp increase this year in the clearing of forests in the Amazon. That's bad news for endangered ecosystems, as well as the world's climate. Deforestation releases large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

It's also a setback for big food companies that have pledged to preserve those forests — or at least to boycott suppliers that clear forests in order to raise crops or graze cattle. "Traders such as Cargill, Bunge, or Louis Dreyfus; consumer good manufacturers such as Mondelēz or Procter & Gamble or Unilever; retailers such as Walmart and McDonald's — all the major brands have made those commitments," says Luiz Amaral, director of global solutions for commodities and finance at the World Resources Institute.

Most of the companies promised to cut all links to deforestation by 2020, but few are likely to make that deadline. Turns out, it's really hard for companies to ensure that none of their raw materials came from recently cleared land.

So Amaral and his colleagues just created a new online tool for companies to use. They call it Global Forest Watch Pro.

Amaral works in Brazil. I'm in Washington, D.C. But with the magic of computer screen-sharing, he can show me exactly how it works.

Amaral pulls up an image of the globe. This particular image shows which areas are covered by trees. Amaral calls it "the Google Maps of forests."

This map is created from data collected by satellites operated by NASA. One satellite scans the entire planet every week, constantly updating this map.
So it's possible to tell whether trees disappear from one week to the next. Another satellite monitors the entire globe for fires.

Researchers at the University of Maryland created software to filter this flood of data and detect the signals of deforestation. "The key innovation here is that the computer is doing all that work for us, constantly looking at those images as they're being taken, to identify if something changed in the tree cover; if there is a fire in that area," Amaral says.

Then Amaral shows me how to use this tool to monitor specific farms. "I uploaded 22 cattle farms in Brazil," he says. These farms show up as highlighted areas in one region of Brazil.

These are real farms. Amaral got their information from a public database of land ownership in Brazil. With a few mouse clicks, we see how much of each farm is covered with trees and how that area has changed.

He points out one 40,000-acre-farm. Half of it is covered in forests. But we can also see that, 15 years ago, the whole thing was forest. We zoom in closer. We can see exactly where trees disappeared in this part of Brazil.

"So you can see here that almost all the tree cover loss within this region actually happened within this specific farm here," he says.

The boundary of this farm, in fact, lines up almost exactly with the area of deforestation. It looks like intentional forest-clearing, not a wildfire.

"That would be exactly my assumption," Amaral says.

In a similar way, a food company can enter the locations of farms from which it buys raw materials. Global Forest Watch Pro then will send an alert whenever it detects deforestation within that area.

The company Mondelēz International, which makes Oreo cookies and Triscuit crackers, already is using it. "I think it's actually extremely important," says Jonathan Horrell, the company's director of global sustainability. "The tool enables you to understand what's actually happening in real time."

Mondelēz has pledged to cut its greenhouse emissions. But when it did an audit of those emissions, it realized that fuel-burning factories and trucks were not the biggest part of its carbon footprint. "It's actually the carbon emissions that are linked to deforestation — forests being cut down in order to produce raw materials that we use in our products," he says.

Those raw materials include palm oil from plantations in Indonesia, and cocoa farms in West Africa.

Companies that want to use Global Forest Watch Pro have to figure out exactly where their suppliers are, and that can be difficult.

Mondelēz is doing this with cocoa farms. "As of the end of 2018, we'd mapped 90,000 farms in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, which are the most important sources of cocoa in our supply chain," he says. Mondelēz and other companies also monitor land that's close to mills where they buy palm oil.

This is easier to do when companies buy food directly from local producers, as is often the case with cocoa and palm oil. In other cases, though, products move through a long chain of intermediary companies. Farmers who raise cattle may sell them to a local slaughterhouse, not directly to McDonald's.

Yet Luiz Amaral, from the World Resources Institute, says even local slaughterhouses can use this new online tool. The beauty of this tool, he says, is that it's so cheap and easy to use. In fact, WRI has persuaded one slaughterhouse in Paraguay to sign up for an account.

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Brazilian scientists say the destruction of the country's forests has increased sharply this year. Those forests often are cleared to grow food. Many big food companies have pledged to stop this. NPR's Dan Charles says some of those companies are watching what their suppliers are doing from space.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Mondelez International may not be a household name, but its products are.

JONATHAN HORRELL: We're the company that makes Oreo cookies and Triscuit and Wheat Thins, for example.

CHARLES: This is Jonathan Horrell, the company's director of global sustainability.

HORRELL: We make snacks. We make nice things to eat. Our purpose is snacking made right.

CHARLES: He says they want to make their snacks the right way, too, without heating up the planet, so the company decided to measure its greenhouse gas emissions. And it realized most of them were not coming from factories or trucks.

HORRELL: It's actually the carbon emissions that are linked to deforestation or forests being cut down in order to produce raw materials that we use as ingredients in our products.

CHARLES: Like palm oil from plantations in Indonesia. A few years ago, Mondelez promised to stop its suppliers from cutting down trees. Dozens of food companies made the same promise. Here's Luiz Amaral from the World Resources Institute, an environmental group.

LUIZ AMARAL: Walmart and McDonald's - all of the major brands have made those commitments.

CHARLES: They promised to get it done by 2020, but most of them are not going to make their deadline. Turns out, it's hard to do. So Luiz Amaral and his colleagues stepped in and created a new online tool for companies to use, including Mondelez. They call it Global Forest Watch Pro.

AMARAL: So the first thing you need to do is actually to log in to the system.

CHARLES: Amaral's in Brazil. I'm in Washington, D.C. But with the miracle of Skype and computer screen sharing, he can show me exactly how it works. I see an image of the globe. It shows which areas are covered by trees.

AMARAL: Which is kind of the Google Maps of forests.

CHARLES: A satellite scans the entire globe every week and updates this map so you can tell if trees disappear from one week to the next. Another satellite monitors the globe for fires every day.

AMARAL: The key innovation here is that the computer is doing all that work for us, constantly looking at those images as they're being taken to identify if something changed on the tree cover - if there is a fire that is happening in that area.

CHARLES: And then Amaral shows me how you can use this to monitor specific farms.

AMARAL: So in this case here, just let me just give you an example. So I uploaded 22 cattle farms in Brazil.

CHARLES: I see a bunch of rectangles and other shapes on this one part of Brazil.

AMARAL: Those are real farms.

CHARLES: He got this information from a public database of land ownership in Brazil. With a few mouse clicks, we see how much of each farm is covered with trees and also how that's changed. He points out one 40,000-acre farm. Half of it's covered in forests. But 15 years ago, we see the whole thing was forest. We zoom in closer. We can see exactly where the trees disappeared.

AMARAL: So you can see here that almost all of the tree cover lost within this region actually happened within this specific farm here.

CHARLES: And specifically within the borders of that farm, so that was intentional. That wasn't just a wildfire.

AMARAL: Yeah. That'll be exactly my assumption.

CHARLES: If a company makes a list of its suppliers like this, the tool will send an alert whenever it detects deforestation right there. So that's the tool. Jonathan Horrell from Mondelez International says his company is already using it.

HORRELL: I think it's actually extremely important because the tool enables you to understand what's actually happening in real time.

CHARLES: But the really hard part is companies have to figure out exactly where their suppliers are. Mondelez is doing that with cocoa farms.

HORRELL: As of the end of 2018, we'd mapped around 93,000 cocoa farms in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, which are the two most important sources of cocoa in our supply chain.

CHARLES: This is easier to do when companies buy food directly from local producers. They often do with cocoa and palm oil, but in other cases, they don't. Farmers who raise cattle may sell them to a local slaughterhouse, not McDonald's. But Amaral from the World Resources Institute says the beauty of this new online tool is it's so cheap and easy to use, even local slaughterhouses can use it. And they have convinced a slaughterhouse in Paraguay to sign up for an account.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.