An area of overseas land nearly as big as the UK is needed to meet our demand for products such as palm oil and cocoa, conservationists have warned.
Action is needed to make sure global supply chains for food and products consumed in the UK are not driving deforestation, threatening wildlife and increasing the risk of future pandemics spreading from wild animals, they said.
A report from WWF and the RSPB found the amount of overseas land needed to meet British demand for key products has grown by 15% since the last assessment of the UK’s “land footprint” for 2011-2015.
The wildlife groups warn that more than a quarter (28%) of this land is linked to countries with a high risk of human rights abuses, deforestation and other habitat destruction, increasing the threat of the extinction for 2,800 species.
The Riskier Business report from the two groups looks at the environmental risks linked to the UK trade from 2016 to 2018 in soy, palm oil, cocoa, beef and leather, pulp and paper, timber, and natural rubber.
Among the countries with a high risk of deforestation is Brazil, where British supermarkets this week warned they will not be able to source products from if legislation is passed which threatens the Amazon rainforest, as well as countries such as Ivory Coast and Indonesia.
The majority of imports of some products come from countries with high deforestation rates, raising the risk they are linked to the destruction of wildlife-rich areas which are home to threatened species from orangutans to giant anteaters.
Almost all palm oil (89%), as well as 65% of soy, largely used as animal feed, and 63% of cocoa imported to the UK comes from countries with high rates of deforestation, the report said.
It also said the UK’s overseas land footprint for timber saw the biggest increase since the last assessment, due to policies that boosted biofuels.
The two nature charities are urging the Government to take steps to remove deforestation from supply chains and ensure that trade deals in the aftermath of Covid-19 do not contribute to habitat destruction and climate change.
They want measures added to the Environment Bill including “mandatory due diligence” rules requiring UK businesses to prove their supply chains are not having a harmful effect.
Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said the hidden cost of UK-bought food and products was often the destruction of nature overseas, and warned “every hectare cleared brings us in closer contact with wild animals and risks a new global pandemic”.
She said: “As we begin the process of recovery from the pandemic, we urgently need a legal duty on companies to cut these activities out of their supply chains, and we can’t sign up to trade deals that have habitat destruction baked in.
“If we don’t take these measures, we are just starting the timer on the next global health crisis.”
Beccy Speight, chief executive at the RSPB, said: “It is easy to feel distant from the destruction of forests thousands of miles away.
“But the global pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the fact that when we destroy nature, we gamble with human health.
“If we are serious about rebuilding a brighter future, we need new laws to ensure that companies can prove their supply chains are not putting us all at risk.”
International environment minister Zac Goldsmith said: “The WWF and the RSPB make an hugely important connection between the products we buy and their wider environmental footprint, which is why the government is working hard to tackle deforestation and protect wildlife both at home and abroad.
“A lot of progress has already been made, but we’re looking closely at independent recommendations to consider what more we can do more to reduce the UK environmental footprint overseas.”