Industries in Depth

Why the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C is encouraging

This image shows a field of cows, illustrating the challenges of the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C

The Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C explains how companies will change agricultural land use Image: Photo by Marino Bobetic on Unsplash

Petra Tanos
Head, Strategic Partnerships, Tropical Forest Alliance
Jack Hurd
Executive Director, Tropical Forest Alliance, World Economic Forum
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

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  • Last year, at COP26, leading agricultural commodity traders and processors agreed to collaborate to create a roadmap to decouple deforestation from their supply chains.
  • Working together, fourteen major companies have delivered the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C, which lays out how they will reduce emissions from land use changes in the cattle, palm oil and soy sectors.
  • Here, we look at how far the agricultural sector has progressed along the roadmap and the obstacles that must be navigated along the way.

COP27 is described as the implementation COP. This means following up on pledges made in Glasgow last year at COP26, which included a commitment by leading agricultural commodity traders and processors to come to Sharm El-Sheikh with a roadmap to decouple deforestation from their supply chains. Working together, fourteen companies have delivered the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C.

Launched at the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership, the roadmap lays out how the companies will reduce emissions from land use changes in the cattle, palm oil and soy sectors.

This is critical because land use change contributes 23% of global CO2 emissions. Without reducing emissions from land use change – which includes stopping deforestation and the conversion of natural ecosystems – we will not reach our climate goal of holding the global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

It is also crucial because these companies are at the heart of our global food system; an issue higher up the agenda at this COP than all previous meetings, at a time when global food security is under threat.

Our global food system employs a third of the world’s workforce. It feeds eight billion people. The models that have underpinned the increase in food production, however, come at the cost of destroying national ecosystems and contributing significantly to climate change. Between 2001 and 2015, just seven agricultural commodities replaced more than 70 million hectares of forest – an area more than twice the size of Germany. Cattle, palm oil and soy were the main drivers of that.

A visualisation of the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C
A visualisation of the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C Image: Tropical Forest Alliance

Agricultural Sector Roadmap: Signalling unprecedented levels of collaboration

The Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C represents a shared, sector-wide plan for addressing deforestation in supply chains and for accelerating collaboration to achieve that goal. It is the outcome of a year’s work between the signatories, who manage large global trade volumes in key agricultural commodities – including more than half of Brazilian soy exports and the global palm oil trade. The process was facilitated by the Tropical Forest Alliance, with support from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

It was not an easy process, but it represents an unprecedented collaboration by the sector. It is significant that the signatories have developed a shared approach to addressing this deeply complex and controversial issue.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

The Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C commits the companies to develop implementation plans consistent with the overall targets, enhancing transparency and enabling accountability. The plans must provide detail on traceability and supply chain monitoring. This means the companies must report annually on progress and set emissions reductions targets based on science.

While there is only one roadmap, each of the commodity sectors faces different starting points and challenges. The palm oil sector has made significant progress to delink forest loss and land use change from production over the last decade and the roadmap builds on this to drive 'last mile' transformation through investment in smallholders and small and medium businesses in the supply chain.

Although much attention is directed at palm, cattle is the single largest driver of deforestation and habitat loss. Between 2001 and 2015, pasture replaced 45.1 million hectares of forest. This is more than twice what was replaced by palm oil, soy and cocoa combined. One of the most important elements of the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C, therefore, is the commitment made by JBS and Marfrig – the two meatpackers in the group – to end all deforestation in the Amazon by 2025, legal and illegal, for direct and indirect suppliers. This is significant because, while structural illegality is endemic in these supply chains, a framework is needed to go beyond illegality to get on a pathway to 1.5°C.

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Significant gaps remain

In some areas, however, particularly the soy sector, the Agricultural Sector roadmap falls short – short of what leading consumer goods companies in the Forest Positive Coalition of Action and the UK Soy Manifesto have asked of these traders. It also falls short of what many civil society organizations have been advocating for years.

One of the biggest issues at stake is the future of the Brazilian Cerrado, a mosaic landscape that is significant for the global production of soy. Between 2003 and 2013, the conversion of non-forest ecosystems in the Cerrado accounted for more than 70% of emissions from cropland expansion. In fact, 82% of land in the Cerrado converted from natural vegetation to agricultural use in 2015 to 2020 was not classed as forest. To put this in simpler terms, a commitment that is limited to no deforestation – which is what the soy sector has in the roadmap today – still exposes millions of hectares of a critical ecosystem to conversion, which in turn makes staying on a 1.5°C trajectory near impossible.

Global food security is also at stake. This is why it is important to understand that no-conversion does not mean that agricultural production cannot expand. There are lands, including degraded land, planted grasslands and other types of agricultural land, that are suitable for soy expansion. Some soy traders understand this and, individually, have set more ambitious targets than those in the Agricultural Sector Roadmap. They must be recognized for their leadership and the sector must follow suit.

But it is not so simple. Setting targets is easy, implementing them is hard. Farmers and producers are at the heart of our food supply chains. Those producers – who prioritise, like all of us, their families and their livelihoods – must be incentivised to make the changes required of the sector.

Food, nature and climate crises collide

What is true in the soy sector is true in the agriculture sector more broadly. While processors and traders have the farm-gate and ranch-gate relationships with the producers who hold the keys to the transition, they cannot on their own keep climate goals within reach.

To transform the agri-commodity sector, collective action across the system is required: from governments, producers, the finance sector and civil society. Governments will need to enact or refine policies and regulations to underpin this transformation, for example, tighter land use planning policies and enforcement of existing regulations. Blended finance – with philanthropy used to attract public and corporate funding – can be used to stimulate investment and underwrite the costs of this transition.

This transformation is possible and there are signs that government and private sector collaboration can pay dividends. In Indonesia, for example, government intervention and private-sector action have significantly reduced forest loss within palm supply chains. In 2011, Indonesia introduced a moratorium on new licenses in primary forests and peatlands and many supply chain companies have implemented ‘no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation’ commitments, which focus on making palm oil more sustainable. As a result, Indonesia saw four consecutive years of reductions in primary forest loss from 2017 to 2020.

If it is happening in one critical geography, the land use transition that is needed on a global scale can happen elsewhere. This is not an issue going anywhere fast as the food crisis looks set to worsen. The Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C is one example of an implementation plan in a giant puzzle where food, nature and climate collide.

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