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The Hidden Cost of Cheese

Jenny Donath looks at the hidden ethical and environmental consequences linked to cheese.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

New investigations have identified a direct link between deforestation in Brazil, and beloved cheese products in UK supermarkets.

In recent years, the welfare complaints associated with cattle rearing have been increasingly brought to the public’s attention. The argument by advocates, being against the cycle of artificial insemination, constant pregnancy, mother-child separation, and the eventual forced lactation.

These are the current UK dairy farm practices, that are based on a US model which also severely limits the cow’s ability to graze, naturally. This process being predominantly for the production of cheese, for human consumption.

Practices and Beyond

Additionally, there are various environmental concerns that go hand in hand with the dairy industry. For instance, 22 million tonnes of cheese are made annually across the globe. The mean average CO2 footprint is 9.8kg per 1kg of produced cheese, and for some cheeses like gouda, the footprint is as high as 16kg of CO2.

One might associate soya as predominantly being only used in the production of protein-rich foods like tofu, soya drinks, or edamame beans. But, 80% of all soya harvests are being used to feed livestock. Furthermore, what used to be grass and food waste as the main food source for cattle has now mainly been replaced by soya grains.

Based on data from 2019, the British dairy industry imports around 360,000 tonnes of soya per year, from countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the US. This makes UK Dairy farms the second biggest soya consumer after UK poultry farms. Soya is being directly linked to deforestation.

How are Supermarket Products Linked to Deforestation?

New investigations revealed that various UK supermarket brands are linked to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, and the Cerrado ecoregion. The soya crops that are grown instead provide a food source to cattle on UK farms, which supply companies such as Cathedral City, Anchor, and Davidstow Cheddar, with milk.

Anna Jones, from Greenpeace UK has stated that,

‘Many people will be appalled to hear that their cheese and butter are linked to forest destruction on the other side of the Atlantic.’

These tropical regions are homes to various animals and plants, and are hotspots of biodiversity. 10% of all known species on Earth inhabit the Amazon rainforest, and 5% of the world’s animal and plant species live in the Cerrado ecoregion. Moreover, the forests play a big role in maintaining a good climate.

Cargill, one of the biggest US grain companies, also supplies UK farms with soya bought from Brazil. Already named the “Worst Company in the World” in 2019 and having been under criticism for lobbying, they have faced new allegations surrounding deforestation.

Investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), Greenpeace Unearthed, and ITV News revealed that Cargill’s Brazilian soya supplier, Grupo Scheffer, has been responsible for several environmental damages like logging or burning down large swathes of forest in the recent years.

What is the Damage?

In 2021 alone, Grupo Scheffer produced over 560,000 tonnes of cotton, corn, and soya and has been producing soya for 30 years across the amazon rainforest, the Cerrado ecoregion, and the Pantanal, which is the world’s largest tropic wetland.

According to satellite images taken by the NGO AidEnvironment, Grupo Scheffer farms cleared 10sqkm of forest in 2019 and 2020, but when questioned, the company stated that they didn’t manage those areas, although they have been fined for clearing woodlands before.

However, other Cargill suppliers have also been linked to logging 800sqkm of the Cerrado region’s forests. Furthermore, there have been over 12,000 controlled burnings since 2015 for crop production, according to TBIJ.

Cargill responded to accusations stating that:

“We take this type of grievance against a supplier very seriously […] If violations re found in any area, we will take immediate action in accordance with our Soy Grievance Process. Cargill has worked relentlessly to build a more sustainable soy supply chain.”

Cargill holds a Triple S certification, which is supposed to mean that they use sustainably certified soya. However, sustainable soya can be mixed with non-certified beans from deforested regions, which makes the sustainability factor questionable, and weighs down the ethical value of dairy products like cheese in the supermarket.

Mole Valley Feeds, another soya feed supplier, is one of the main suppliers in the UK. Their soya is used on cattle farms that supply cheese manufacturers, like Saputo. Saputo produces cheese brands like Davidstow Cheddar and Cathedral City.

Following investigations, Saputo have publicly stated that:

"Our Davidstow Farm Standards will mandate that all farms which supply to Saputo Dairy UK’s Davidstow creamery must source feed from suppliers with a sustainable soy purchasing policy."

Concluding Comments

The hidden environmental impact of UK dairy is widely unknown to consumers. It is important to ensure that suppliers are transparent in the environmental impact of their products, allowing consumers to make informed choices.

Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness, Jo Blackman has commented that, ‘Time and time again we have seen commodities like soya linked to tropical deforestation entering UK supply chains. This is a systemic problem, and we need strong legislation to tackle it.’

There has been an urge for new laws and proposals made against deforestation and a demand for better management of supply chain origins. Greenpeace UK has commented that, ‘The government knows this is a huge problem, yet its own proposals on eliminating deforestation from supply chains will only apply if that deforestation is illegal.’


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