Zero Hunger is not just about feeding the world today but also about making sure we can keep feeding the world tomorrow. The steps we take to boost food production need to lay the foundations for long-term sustainability in and around our food systems. Of course, they often do not.

Tropical forests are some of the major frontlines of environmental destruction in the name of food production. Farms and cattle ranches are pushing further and further into forests in Latin America, South East Asia and Central Africa – devastating their rich biodiversity, altering water flows, destroying livelihoods of the poorest, and eliminating carbon sinks that are essential for the climate system – and by extension for the future of food production.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Luoman / Getty Images .

And this has ramifications that go beyond environmental damage. Countries, companies and consumers around the world are increasingly dependent on a handful of tropical regions for their food security – regions where agricultural productivity may be hit hard by climate change.

Much of the deforestation is perfectly legal – and even when it isn’t, local and national governments in producer countries struggle to enforce the restrictions set down in law. However, consumers, retailers, importer countries, investors, traders and others along the supply chains are increasingly keen to turn the situation around.

Supply chain transparency

To do that, they need to know what and where the risks are in their supply chains, and who they should be working with to eliminate those risks. This is not always easy to find out. Supply chains can be long, complex and opaque, particularly for the kinds of commodity crops currently driving deforestation: oil palm, soy, beef, coffee, sugarcane, cacao and more.

Initiatives like Trase, which brings unprecedented transparency to forest-risk commodity supply chains, could be invaluable in making food production more sustainable.

Trase is led by Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy. It maintains trase.earth , a free, publicly accessible online platform where users can explore unique, rich data sets on some of the major forest-risk commodity supply chains. In June 2018, Trase released its first yearbook , reviewing the state of deforestation risk in major forest-risk commodity supply chains in South America.

The yearbook showed that in 2017, nine South American countries exported 450 million metric tons of forest-risk commodities (soy, palm oil, palm kernel oil, cane sugar, maize, cocoa and coffee).

Ripe soybeans

Ripe soybeans. Photo: alffoto / Getty Images .

More specifically, the Yearbook looked at soy exports from Brazil. From virtually zero 50 years ago, South America – led by Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay – has come to supply half the world’s soy exports. Brazil now ranks as the world’s second-biggest (and perhaps, as of 2018, biggest) producer of soy. Soy accounted for 10% of the value of the country’s exports in 2016.

The explosive growth in the country’s soy production has come mostly from expanding soy cropland rather than increases in production efficiency. In 2017, more than 33 million hectares of land – an area the size of Malaysia – was dedicated to soy across Brazil.

While the most of this expansion has been into existing cropland, it has also seen the clearance of large areas of virgin forest and savannah. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon largely stopped with the Soy Moratorium of 2006, following domestic and international pressure, but it continues today in a region of savannah known as the Cerrado.

The vast majority of Brazil’s soy crop ends up in feed for the meat, dairy and aquaculture industries of China, Europe and South America. The economic benefits Brazil enjoys are large, but they are unevenly distributed. 

Using Trase to support more sustainable food production

By weaving together existing sets of data from different sources, Trase recreates the supply chains of up to 100% of the exports of forest-risk commodities from a given country. Trase data shows, among other things, how much of the commodity goes to each of the markets that consume it, the ports it leaves through, and the traders and other actors along those supply chains.

In the case of soy, Trase combines highly detailed geographic information on production with indicators to show how those flows and actors are potentially linked to local sustainability challenges such as deforestation and water scarcity in the production areas.

One way that Trase can help us to better understand forest-risk supply chains is by identifying hotspot regions where soy is being produced on recently deforested land. For example, the past decade has seen significant deforestation in a corner of the Cerrado known as Matopiba. Between 2003 and 2017, soy cropland in Matopiba expanded by almost 280% in the area, of which 1.4 million hectares was on newly deforested land.

Trase can also identify who is buying and exporting soy from which producer regions – as well as the risk they are trading in soy grown on newly deforested land. Trase data shows, for example, that in 2016 just six traders account for accounted for 57% of soy exports from Brazil. These traders have enormous political and economic leverage that could be put to the service of more sustainable food production. Exports of other forest-risk commodities from South America are also dominated by a handful of traders.

And Trase can help importing countries to see how their sourcing patterns might be supporting deforestation. For example, the Trase Yearbook reports that half of the total deforestation risk associated with exports of Brazilian soy in 2016 was linked to soy imports to China. However, the soy imported by EU countries, although smaller in volume, was more likely to have been grown on newly deforested land.

Making a difference

Trase data is available for anyone to explore and download at trase.earth . And it is already being put to use to support zero deforestation. For example, Trase is recognised as a critical source of data for assessing progress on the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests , and as a lead research partner in the new Soy Buyers Coalition. In another important partnership, Trase is helping the bank Santander identify ways to use Trase data on company deforestation risk profiles to guide lending decisions. Several major companies are starting to take Trase seriously as a way to better understand their supply chains and how to reduce their exposure to deforestation risk.

As it evolves, Trase aims not just to show links between commodity supply chains and deforestation, but also to help producers to identify opportunities for more sustainable, deforestation-free expansion. This is important as, if current trends and consumption patterns continue, demand for forest-risk products is projected to keep growing. We hope Trase that can contribute to achieving sustainable food systems, and Zero Hunger – today and tomorrow.

This article is also available on the Trase blog on Medium .