conservation food shopping sustainability

Where does your supermarket shop?

We all get to choose where we do our shopping, and for most of us that basically means choosing from one of the big supermarket chains. But supermarkets have to go shopping too, filling those shelves in the first place. Suppliers in turn need to buy in their ingredients, and so on back through processors and wholesalers to the actual bit of land where our food really comes from.

It can be a long and confusing chain, but we ought to ask more questions about it. There is a link between our grocery choices and deforestation, pollution and environmental degradation in other parts of the world. WWF’s Cerrado campaign highlights the problem by focusing on one particular place – the Brazilian Cerrado savannah, and one product – soya.

Soya is not a product most of us knowingly buy on a regular basis. Unless you’re a fan of soy milk or tofu, you’ll probably encounter it as an additive or a vegetable oil, or through your choices in the meat aisle. Because of its high protein content, cheap soya meal is a critical ingredient in animal feed. Growing demand for meat around the world has made soya something of a booming industry.

If the UK had to grow all its own soya, we’d need an area of land as big as Yorkshire. Instead, we buy it in cheap from places like Brazil, where soya exports have doubled over the past decade. Expanding production means bringing more land into cultivation, and that means pressure on Brazil’s forests.

WWF’s campaign aims to get supermarkets to commit to sourcing soya that has been approved by the Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS), certifying that no native forest was cleared to produce it.

That’s a start of course, but there are plenty of other problems. Even if no new land is opened up, vast areas of industrial monoculture are still devastating for biodiversity. Brazil’s soya farmers are competing for land with the country’s other big export: beef. Without a similar set of standards over beef, certifying soya may have the unintended effect of accelerating deforestation by ranching instead.

You can ask your favourite supermarket to commit to RTRS soy here, but don’t stop there. The bigger issue is the sustainability of the global food network, and the fact that we need Brazilian soy meal to keep us in turkey twizzlers in the first place. Ultimately, the best way to solve the problem is to slow the runaway global demand for meat – something to remember the next time we’re in a supermarket.


  1. Global forests are growing denser.

    ” Pekka Kauppi, of the University of Helsinki, Finland, “With so much bad news available on World Environment Day, we are pleased to report that, of 68 nations studied, forest area is expanding in 45 and density is also increasing in 45. Changing area and density combined had a positive impact on the carbon stock in 51 countries.”

    The researchers analyzed information from 68 nations, which together account for 72 percent of the world’s forested land and 68 percent of reported carbon mass. They conclude that managing forests for timber growth and density offers a way to increase stored carbon, even with little or no expansion of forest area.

    ” In countries where per capita Gross Domestic Product exceeds US $4,600 (roughly equal to the GDP of Chile), richer is greener. In about half of the most forested countries biomass and carbon also expanded.”

      1. Nor is Indonesia. And between them I believe they outstrip the growth in all the other countries put together. (Don’t have time right now to find a source for this).

        Ultimately, the best way to solve the problem is to slow the runaway global demand for meat – something to remember the next time we’re in a supermarket.
        Indeed, for those considering reducing their meat intake in order to reduce their ecological footprint, it is also worth remembering that not all meat is created equal.

      2. PS I’m not saying that increasing forest density isn’t a piece of good news from a carbon perspective, simply that it is only one part of a very large and complex picture. Much of the increasing density relates to the maturation of secondary growth (regrowth), which may be good in terms of carbon sequestration, but biodiversity is another story.

        1. Yes, China has more tree coverage today, the result of fast-growing spruce tree planting on a vast scale. I’ve got nothing against spruce trees, but it’s a pale shadow of the old growth forest that would have been there before.

  2. Tree cover in Scotland was down below 3% by the end of WWII (it was below 1% in England, I think). It is now at 17% with a goal of reaching 25%. Yet most of that was planted with monoculture pine at very high densities, which is great for timber production (the only goal the post-war economy had it mind), but pretty rubbish for biodiversity (if you’ve ever walked in such plantations, they are a bit like a dim desert). In the last couple of decades, a major shift of approach has led to far more native and diverse plantings, which take longer to mature, but which will be much richer in biodiversity (and ultimately in carbon sequestration too).

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