Europe’s clamp down on imports linked to deforestation is problematicby Benedetta Annicchiarico and Antonio Picasso

Leggi in italiano

Article published for Linkiesta

The European Commission has put forward new policies against imports linked to environmental degradation, but they risk being counterproductive and even harmful to ecological transition

The proposal by the European Commission to block entrance to the common market to products linked to deforestation risks being counterproductive and even harmful to the global nature of the ecological transition. The attempt to implement so-called mirror clauses, thus applying domestic standards to imported products, risks to penalize smaller producers and to remove incentives to produce sustainably, making Europe a commercial partner that is economically disadvantageous and politically alienating.

The clamp down on traceability of imported products is a move in line with a continent that wishes to be at the forefront of the green revolution, but that each year imports 16% of global forest loss in the form of commodities (Wwf). EU’s new legislative project, first presented last November, will introduce an obligation to certify sustainable cultivation and production of imported goods according to EU domestic standards. The Commission would also take it upon herself to classify exporter countries on their “deforestation risk” that can be low, medium or high according to local laws and practices. Each score will then determine duties of European importers.

In line with Brussels’ traditions, it’s shaping up to be a complex and layered policy, whose impact is difficult to judge ex ante and, because of its complexity, is easily misunderstood and exploited. Lazier importers will be able to use it as an excuse to abolish all products coming from countries that are even simply suspected of being at high deforestation risk.

Anticipating Strasburg’s decision on the legislative draft, many supermarket chains like Lidl, Sainsbury’s, and Auchan’s French branch, have already declared that they will stop selling Brazilian and Latin American beef from 2022, whether it is certified or not.

Boycotts like these ignore the economic repercussions on the millions of people and families whose subsistence relies on small-scale production of some of the items on the Commission’s black list. Like, for example, palm oil: it is estimated that over the next few years, half of global production – 70 million tons in 2020 – will come from plantations under five hectares in size, the equivalent of about five football fields.

Any dialogue on the goal of “zero deforestation”, that Europe herself claims to be driven by cooperation between producers and consumers, cannot exclude smaller entrepreneurs, many of whom have already been implementing sustainable methods of production, as told by small-holders themselves in Competere’s roundtableSmall-Holders: Drivers of prosperity and sustainability.” Paradoxically, they would be the actors most negatively affected by indiscriminate restrictions and custom taxes levied to implement European environmental standards.

Coming to a concrete example, Colombia, the third largest coffee producers in the world, owes 70% of its production to half a million small farmers who work in the equatorial hinterland. If Europe suddenly stopped buying their coffee, these small-holders who be forced to make a choice: either sell to other countries, trying to make way into an already over-saturated market, or convert their plantation to more secure and profitable crops. Maybe falling into the temptation of cultivations associated with organized crime, such as cocaine. Either way, Europe would come out a loser, with the additional risk of creating a group of poorer and unsatisfied farmers willing to lend an ear to those like Jair Bolsonaro, who accuse Europe of using sustainability as an excuse to hide clumsy attempts to protect the competitivity of its agrifood products.

Global problems like deforestation need solutions that are equally as global. In order to be reconciled with globalization, sustainability must be based on transparent and multilateral decision-making processes, complex by nature, but inclusive of the needs and complaints of all stakeholders. And, above all, guided by a spirit of political and economic compromise, making it so that Europe’s famous ecological virtue does not come at the expense of millions of peoples’ welfare, leaving in its path fuel for populism and nationalism that are the antithesis of a truly global and inclusive transition. Nobody said it was easy…

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