Working towards sustainable soy production – an interview with The Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA)

Value chain collaboration is essential to address most of the critical food systems challenges we face today. This engagement is even more critical for issues like agriculture-driven deforestation and loss of nature, where a variety of stakeholders interact in often complex ways, and where several trade-offs need to be considered to balance environmental and social outcomes. Since 2018, WBCSD hosts the Soft Commodities Forum (SCF), a group of the global leading agribusiness involved in buying and selling commodities like soy. Engaging value chain stakeholders is a critical pillar of the SCF work and The Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) a key partner to facilitate what is, at times, very difficult dialogues. In the context of the launch of the latest SCF report (in a new digital format), we connect with Justin Adams, Executive Director of TFA, to hear more about why this dialogue is so important and what can groups like the SCF do to accelerate it towards impactful action.

Published: 28 Jun 2021
Author: Justin Adams, The Tropical Forest Alliance
Type: Insight

Q1. What are the most exciting developments TFA is seeing in the space of addressing commodities-driven deforestation? Anything specific on soy that you could point to?

The science is now clearer than ever. We're at a critical juncture for not just one, but two major crises threatening the planet: climate change and biodiversity loss. But one of the most promising developments is that there is now a tangibly higher level of energy and commitment from so many of the key players.

It's also evident that people are now coming to terms with the idea that no single actor or sector can successfully address these challenges on its own. The challenges are by their nature so complex that they can only be addressed collectively. Another really positive development, then, is the growing realization that dialogue and collective action is the only way we can make progress.

The dynamics around soy are extremely complex. However, I should also stress that much of the dialogue that has already taken place to identify workable solutions holds promise. In Brazil TFA is convening detailed and continuing discussions between government, producers and trade associations. Internationally the conversation between different actors up and down the supply chain is also building deeper understanding and the foundation for shared solutions moving forward. Sure, those taking part in these dialogues may not be moving as fast as we would like, but we are definitely on the way to creating the conditions where solutions could emerge.

Q2. There seems to be broad agreement that solutions to tackle deforestation need to be collaborative and encompass the whole value chain. What has made it so difficult to achieve alignment so far?

Alignment has been challenging because of the numerous and competing interests at stake. Broadly speaking we can say that these interests are held by a mixture of producers, private companies, governments, consumers, the UN and environmental NGOs. Each one holds a different view of the best way forward, a different view of what constitutes positive change.

We need to construct a system that can accommodate as many of these interests as possible, without losing sight of our central goal: securing food supplies while reversing deforestation. At the very least, each group needs to recognize that every other group sees their own priority as entirely legitimate, even though they may disagree with it.

But the true heart of the challenge is to convince each party to accept the need for trade-offs. We need to recognize that there will have to be limits to further growth, especially when tempering excessive consumption in the global north. We cannot insist that developing countries restrict their own growth without changing our own consumption behavior.

However, nor can we simply pivot in the opposite direction. Some NGOs would like to see all production of soy (for instance) to cease overnight as a way to prevent further degradation of forest land. But that approach would be catastrophic for tens of thousands of farmers and their families who depend on soy production. Such an approach would merely entrench existing levels of rural poverty in parts of rural Brazil.

Q3. What should collective platforms like the SCF, and its members, prioritize to drive progress?

First, I'd like to say the SCF is already doing great work bringing the biggest agribusinesses together and encouraging the companies to enhance transparency and develop lasting solutions. Whilst individual companies are advancing some promising individual solutions, I'd ideally like to see a broader sectoral shift.  

But I also recognize that SCF members, and the broader portion of the value chain they represent, are caught between the rock of producers on the one hand, and a hard place of hundreds of market-facing companies and perhaps millions of consumers on the other. They're at the 'pinchpoint' of the supply chain, and are often attacked from all sides. This makes it very difficult for their voices to be heard, and so for the SCF to amplify these voices while also encourage more ambitious approaches is incredibly helpful.

Ensuring greater transparency of data is an important starting point and I am delighted to see the SCF increase the number of municipalities you will be reporting on.  The next step is getting to more transformative solutions that eliminate conversion. I recognize this is not something they can do in isolation and this is where the dialogue with the Consumer Goods Forum Forest Positive Coalition and other key market actors becomes so important to find lasting solutions. 

We should bear in mind that there's impatience now for real, lasting solutions. We've got to raise our ambition and sights. The good news is that 2021 offers an unrivalled opportunity to shift how each sector is performing, with three critical summits taking place: the Food Systems summit at the end of July; the Biodiversity summit in October, and finally the Climate Change Conference in November.    

Q4. How positive are you we’ll be able to decouple the production of key commodities from deforestation in key hotspots around the world by the ambitious timelines set forth by the international community?

With palm oil, we've made tremendous progress driving down from the peaks we saw ten years ago to much lower levels of deforestation today. The data for soy also suggests that some of the conversion pressure has reduced, but we know agriculture is still driving 90% of deforestation globally. 

We can't do our job without being optimistic – and without being committed to constructing solutions that start to recognize the trade-offs we need. The best way to do that is to devise incentives for farmers and producers that go beyond their legal requirements, so that they are motivated to conserve and restore more native vegetation. I'm optimistic because we can already see that sectors are beginning to recognize this.

But there are still deep misunderstandings. The dialogue and conversation space is still critically important for enhancing trust. We also have to find creative ways of bringing more Chinese players into the discussion, as well as solutions that work between China and Brazil.

We also shouldn't underestimate the scale of the challenges at hand. Change will require everybody to commit to dialogue, trust-building, and a deepening of the understanding of how we can manage trade-offs. We need to be bold and ambitious with these solutions.

My favorite proverb comes from Africa: "If we want to go fast we go alone; if we want to go far we go together". Somehow we have to figure out how we go far and fast now, because we haven't got a lot of time, and we also have to do it collectively.

Justin Adams, Executive Director, The Tropical Forest Alliance

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