Meat suppliers to British supermarkets and the NHS have been linked with a farmer accused of illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, The Telegraph can reveal.
Multiple fires were recorded on land belonging to a Brazilian farmer that had been designated for protection after earlier deforestation, according to satellite data seen by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).
The designation and fines of over $1 million were intended to penalise the landowner and ensure illegally cleared forests had time to recover. Fires are often set in the Brazilian rainforest to clear land for agriculture, which threatens the rainforest’s biodiversity and ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
Cattle belonging to the farmer was sent to abattoirs run by meat companies that supply Sainsburys, Lidl, Asda, and British wholesalers that sell to the NHS. There have now been calls for them to drop the contracts.
The links raise concerns that products on British supermarket shelves could have come from areas at risk of deforestation, despite commitments from the companies to end the practice in their supply chains.
Although it is unclear whether meat sourced from the farm ended up on British shelves, environmental campaigners say supermarkets are failing to do the due diligence required to understand their supply chains.
“For the UK Government, public services, and our supermarkets to be sourcing meat from companies involved in the destruction of the Amazon is inexcusable,” said Elena Polisano, senior forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK.
“Renowned forest destroyers should be excluded from UK supply chains without delay. The only way we will prevent future climate catastrophe is with fast, decisive action including a zero tolerance approach to deforestation.”
The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, but vast areas in Brazil have become net emitters over the past decade thanks to deforestation and climate change.
Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, has been accused of overseeing policies that have ramped up destruction in the rainforest. Satellite mapping of fires and data on illegal deforestation analysed by the TBIJ show the number of major fires on embargoed rural land increased from 77 in 2018 (immediately before Mr Bolsonaro took office) to 124 in 2020.
The UK Government is introducing legislation that would require businesses to ensure their supply chains are free from illegal deforestation, although it has been criticised as being inadequate because of the amount of legal destruction.
The legislation is largely supported by major supermarkets, although they have argued that complex supply chains make it difficult to ascertain the true source of their products and the treatment of the land it came from.
But the TBIJ established that international meat giants JBS and Marfrig sourced nearly a thousand cattle between 2018 and 2019 from Vilymar Bissoni, a farmer linked to repeated cases of deforestation which resulted in multiple sanctions in the central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, a major centre for beef and soy production.
At least three fires – in 2015, 2018 and 2020 – broke out within the perimeters of two of these embargoed areas, after the sanctions were imposed, the Bureau found.
Mr Bissoni owns a company with a shareholding in the agribusiness Bissoni Agropecuária and in a statement the company denied the fires had been deliberately set.
JBS and Marfrig’s UK customers include Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Asda, and other major supermarkets as well as wholesalers, some of which supply the NHS.
JBS did not deny doing business with Vilymar Bissoni but said the company “does not tolerate any illegal deforestation in the Amazon or other biomes”.
Marfrig confirmed that Bissoni had been a supplier to one of its slaughterhouses, but said the farmer was no longer on its supplier list. The company said the farmer was “fully compliant” with its rules for suppliers at the time of the transactions.
JBS, which is the largest animal protein producer on Earth, has vowed not to buy cattle from land which has faced sanctions by the Brazilian government. The company has committed to zero deforestation in its supply chain, but not until 2025.
An Asda spokesperson said: “We know how important sustainability is to our customers and are committed to working across our supply chain to stop food production linked to deforestation. We have worked with our supplier to ensure that any newly sourced canned products do not contain any Brazilian beef from JBS by the end of 2021.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “Sainsbury’s is committed to sourcing sustainably and working together with Global Witness and the wider industry to tackle deforestation and preserve the essential ecosystems in the Amazon and Cerrado.”
It added that JBS products were not used in its own brand products, but did not rule out their use in other products stocked by the supermarket.
A spokesman for the NHS said it went “above and beyond to try to ensure a sustainable supply chain”.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Our members take every effort to ensure the products they sell have no links to deforestation and work closely with their suppliers to check this. Company actions need to be supported by effective laws and enforcement to protect the forests from exploitation.”
Kate Norgrove, the executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: "When we shop, we don’t expect the goods we buy to have fueled the destruction and burning of precious habitats in Brazil, such as the Amazon and Cerrado.
"What makes it worse, is that this devastation is unnecessary – there is plenty of existing land that is suitable for growing crops and grazing cattle.
“Supermarkets must shift rapidly from just cleaning up their individual supply chains to setting higher expectations for the traders and meatpackers they work with, encouraging robust action across their entire operations to protect and restore nature.
"They should support the development and adoption of full and transparent traceability systems so they know exactly where imports are coming from, and invest in on-the-ground sustainability efforts, including financial incentives for farmers.”