How Germany can break the link between EU meat consumption, deforestation and human suffering

17 Januar 2019

Written by: Nicole Polsterer

How Germany can break the link between EU meat consumption, deforestation and human suffering

Farming is the planet’s biggest driver of deforestation, and beef and soya production the prime culprits. The lion’s share of deforestation caused by these commodities is in Latin America, and Germany’s responsibility is considerable. Germany is aware of the destruction caused by its imports of animal feed from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay and has therefore included support for deforestation-free supply chains in its own government coalition agreement. But more than a commitment is needed, and Germany alone cannot save the world’s forests. At home Germany must revise how she spends EU agricultural subsidies, and at the EU level she must galvanize action for a harmonized approach to protect forest peoples’ rights and save forests.

Germans love their meat and despite meat consumption rising globally, they are still among the top consumers in the world. 

German meat consumption has doubled since 1950 and lies at about 89kg per person per year. The World Health Organization/Food and Agricultural Organization recommend eating a fraction of this. Producing these huge quantities of meat requires an intensive livestock farming system, and farmers rely heavily on soya for its high protein content - and this soya often causes deforestation.

Soya imports from endangered forests

Every year the EU feeds its livestock on 36 million tonnes of imported soya grown on 15 million hectares of land mostly in Latin America. 97 per cent of imported soy is used for animal feed, and a sixth of this goes to Germany: 6.3 million tonnes of soya annually, with the bulk coming from Latin America. An area of land equivalent to the size of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is needed to grow this, at roughly 2.6 million hectares.

Latest data from Brazil shows that the EU, and especially Germany, source soy from high forest risk areas in Brazil, such as the four states forming Matopiba, Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. In the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savannah where most of the soya exported to the EU comes from, 56 per cent of soya production takes place on farms which do not respect Brazil’s forest code.

Between 2010 and 2016, Germany was the second biggest export destination of soya from this Brazilian deforestation hotspot, after China and before Spain.[i]

German firms Edeka, Lidl, Kaufland, Aldi, Rewe, and Metro - whose owners’ control 70 per cent of the German retail market - have a key role to play. Only when such brands - who answer to Europe’s growing number of environmentally and socially conscious consumers - ask for greater transparency in their food production, will international traders such as Bunge, Cargill, and ADM move. These global players, who make up almost half of the soya supply chain, need to ensure the famers that supply them live up to their sourcing policies for legal or zero deforestation soya. After all, the three firms accounted for 85 per cent of all the exported soya between 2010 and 2016 which was linked to deforestation.[ii] As Brazil’s soya bean farming is expected to expand by three to five million hectares by 2027,[iii] the deforestation risk is massive, especially given the recent election of ‘Trump of the Amazon’, Jair Bolsonaro.

If the German government is serious about tackling deforestation in their supply chains[iv] their priority should be to monitor food and feed importing, trading, manufacturing and selling companies

Agriculture field in Paraguay

Homework for Germany

There are several roads Germany can take to decrease its forest footprint abroad: incentivising people to eat - and companies to offer - more balanced, plant-based diets, supporting agroecology and ensuring that German companies have full traceability of their supply chains, including finance and investment. Germany should also incentivise governance reform in forest countries and get the EU as a whole to act.  Proposals for action are outlined below.

          1. Germany must support governance reforms in forested countries

Weak governance in forested countries is one of the root causes of deforestation. Couple this with high levels of demand for soya, and you create a perfect storm. This doesn’t just have impact on forests: in many areas, Indigenous Peoples and local communities face threats from large-scale industrial agriculture and related conversion of forests.

One of the most important elements of poor governance is unclear land rights. While communities are estimated to hold as much as 65 per cent of the world’s land area through customary, community-based tenure system, only ten per cent is legally under indigenous and community ownership. The International Labour Organisation Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 recognise community rights of ownership and use of lands they traditionally occupy, and call upon governments to recognise and respect these rights. While collective or community tenure is increasingly being recognised as a valuable system, areas not legally owned often remain unprotected and vulnerable to land grabs from more powerful entities such as corporations.

Germany is already a supporter of land tenure regularisation in Brazil. Brazil’s current land tenure system is extremely complex due to the enormous size of the rainforest, the settlement history and conflicting interests. While in the 1970s farmers were granted land use rights in the Amazon, they did not receive property titles to their plots of land. The absence of clear ownership structures continues to facilitate illegal land grabbing and often leads to violent land conflicts. So far about a quarter of the area (about 3.7 million hectares) that is supposed to be titled with the help of German development aid has been prepared to be officially transferred to smallholders - 30,000 out of the planned 160,000 titles have been given to smallholders.

Germany must step up its efforts to support land tenure reform and titling in regions that it sources commodities.

Fresh destruction for cattle

    2. Germany’s agricultural model needs to change

In 2014, Germany received considerable subsidies to be the EU’s top pig producer, second largest cattle producer and among the top five poultry producers. By the end of 2020 it will have received about EUR 44.1 billion from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) since 2014. It has also received an EU support package of more than EUR 69 million, which the German authorities have chosen to distribute to farmers in the pig, beef and dairy, sheep and goat sectors. Its highly subsidised, intensive meat production sector is largely dependent on soya imports from forested countries.

In April 2018 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted for a strategy to promote protein crops in Europe. It acknowledged the social consequences of intensive soya production, such as land-grabbing, human rights abuses and forced expulsions, as well as “contamination with pesticides, soil erosion, water depletion and deforestation leading to a devastating loss of biodiversity”. MEPs are calling for coherent EU agricultural, trade and energy policies to make protein crops, especially soya, economically viable in the EU and neighbouring countries; they advocate a shift from input-intensive crop monocultures within and outside the EU towards diversified agroecological systems.

We believe that the EU must now agree concrete objectives for the leguminous crop sector, removing support for monoculture or continuous cropping of leguminous crops. Supporting rotating leguminous crops, such as soya will avoid expanding land use, help use the land more efficiently and have positive effects on soil fertility. Decreasing dependency on concentrated feed mix containing soya, especially imported soya from land that has recently been deforested or converted, should be rewarded. This would support companies who implement their commitments on zero deforestation in their supply chains and support work towards Sustainable Development Goal 15, Life on Land. Long overdue, a new set of goals under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should support localised less damaging farming.

On a global scale, a scientific report published by NGOs of the Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA), projects that shifts in the way we produce food could help avoid 7.5 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) annually, and sequester 1.04 Gt CO2e through agroforestry. These reductions should be achieved through a reduction in food waste, adopting more balanced diets and better livestock production. These emissions reductions would play a significant part in helping limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Paris climate deal’s most ambitious goal.

Germany must seize the opportunity of ongoing reform of the CAP and prepare its own strategic plans to diversify protein production, including meat alternatives, and support the transition towards agroecological practices that benefit farmers and improve soils.

3. Germany must push the EU for further action

Germany is one of the seven signatory states to the 2015 Amsterdam Declaration Towards Eliminating Deforestation from Agricultural Commodity Chains. It pledged to support the European Commission in assessing policy options for a roadmap towards EU action on deforestation.

In March 2018, the European Commission released a study on options to halt deforestation and forest degradation.[i] It outlines twenty options to reach this aim, which forms part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are meant to be achieved by 2020. Just over a year from 2020, we are far from achieving these goals; we are actually sliding backwards. Deforestation rages on with around 10 million hectares of forest destroyed per year; meanwhile global meat consumption grows.

One option for the EU is to regulate its imports of forest risk commodities to ensure that they are free from deforestation, human rights abuses and land grabs. The Commission study on halting deforestation suggests that it could achieve change without new legislative actions, but the EU should be more ambitious. It should pass laws requiring companies to trace their supply chains fully and ensure that they adhere to human rights laws.

The EU should make it mandatory for companies to know the history of any agricultural commodities they import. This could be done by making the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Due Diligence Guidance mandatory. This guidance shows how companies can respect human rights and avoid contributing to their violation in responsible agricultural supply chains.

France has already led the way in adopting its 'devoir de vigilance' law which requires its companies to do risk assessments, and respond to any environmental and social damage within their supply chains, including those caused by subcontractors and suppliers globally. Germany and the EU must follow suit by asking for and enacting an action plan to protect forests and respect rights, including binding legislation guaranteeing that no products or financial transactions linked to the EU lead to deforestation, forest degradation and human rights violations.

Next steps 

In May 2019, Germans will elect the new MEPs and in 2020, Germany will chair the European Council Presidency, which rotates every six months. Germany needs to act now and elect the environmental and human rights champions of tomorrow, if she wants to have something to show for when it is in the spotlight as president.

Doing the right thing pays back in the long term, but as we have learned from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we are already seeing the consequences of global warming of one degree. Improving the way we farm, keeping forests standing, and restoring forests can help keep the global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees. If we fail to do so, we will see environmental havoc which would change our way of life far more drastically than the steps required to reign in climate change.


  • Germany like every EU Member State must prioritize supporting agricultural models, which are beneficial to people, forests and wildlife.  
  • Germany must support the EUin adopting an EU Action Plan to protect forests and respect rights globally which needs to include:
    • Efforts to secure tenure rights for indigenous peoples and rural communities. Securing community land and resource rights is key to eliminating poverty, strengthening food security, reducing inequality and conflict, and conserving forests and ecosystems
    • A proposed regulation to ensure imports of agricultural commodities do not stem from illegally converted land or violate international human rights norms and standards in their production.

This blog is the English translation of an article first published in German in the 2019 edition of the Kritischer Agrarbericht.

[i] Data by TRASE/Global Canopy Programme

[ii] Data by TRASE/Global Canopy Programme

[iii] FIESP 2017, MAPA 2018 as presented by TRASE/Global Canopy Programme

Kategorien: Blogs, Meat consumption, Brazil

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