GMWatch and other NGOs warned back in 2009 that the industry-dominated forum was no better than a greenwashing exercise. Report: Claire Robinson
WWF Netherlands has stated that it has lost confidence in the ability of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) to stop deforestation. The admission comes 16 years after WWF International launched this agribusiness-dominated forum to make soy production more environmentally and socially responsible. In particular, the RTRS certification programme was supposed to ensure that soy certified under its label was produced without deforestation.
But WWF Netherlands told the Dutch TV documentary series Zembla that it no longer has confidence in the label: "We have seen that this certification has not worked to combat deforestation."
GMWatch and other NGOs warned as long ago as 2009 that the RTRS was little more than a greenwashing exercise that would perpetuate environmental and public health abuses. Together with 230 groups from across the world, GMWatch signed an open letter to the participants of the RTRS, calling for it to be abandoned. The groups condemned the RTRS on the grounds that it
* was too weak to protect vital ecosystems such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco
* encouraged soy monocultures
* included GM soy as sustainable despite the massive herbicide use enabled by this herbicide-tolerant crop
* ignored the major public health problems in rural people caused by herbicide spraying on GM soy, notably birth defects and cancer.
The groups added that the RTRS failed to challenge major social and human rights abuses.
In another initiative, a group of scientists authored a report, "GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible?", which summarised over a hundred independent studies showing serious health and environmental hazards resulting from the cultivation of GM Roundup Ready soy and the accompanying applications of glyphosate herbicide.
WWF Netherlands' latest statement has confirmed that we – and the scientists – were right. It is tragic that WWF International wasted 16 years on a voluntary industry-dominated initiative that was always doomed to fail and that has caused serious harm, before its Netherlands branch reluctantly reached similar conclusions.
"Wrong" soy in sustainable cattle feed
In The Netherlands, supermarkets and food suppliers claim that all soy used for animal feed has a sustainability hallmark. The RTRS label is one of several available. However, research carried out by Zembla in cooperation with the environmental organisations Greenpeace, Milieudefensie and Aidenvironment showed that this hallmark is a false reassurance. Zembla's TV broadcast, which aired in late November, found that Dutch supermarkets, including Albert Heijn, sell meat and dairy products from animals that are fed the "wrong" soy. That means Brazilian soy that is produced with the help of deforestation, land grabs, and corruption.
The producers of RTRS soy are also criticised in the programme. Satellite images show that an important supplier of RTRS soy was still guilty of deforestation in 2020. Now that it no longer believes in the RTRS certification, the WWF is arguing for legislation that prohibits the use of soy from all deforested areas.
Cerrado is being destroyed
WWF's public disappointment with the RTRS comes as the European Commission has published a proposal restricting products (including soy) linked to deforestation from entering the EU. But according to the forest protection NGO Fern, the proposal does not go far enough to protect forests or the rights of the people living in them.
According to Zembla, WWF agrees. It says the proposed law does not protect all types of forest. Nature reserves such as the Cerrado, the region where most Brazilian soy is produced, are not covered by the proposed law. The Cerrado is the largest forest savannah in the world and is considered to be an enormous CO2 storehouse. Billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas are trapped in the trees and in the soil of the Cerrado.
Zembla travelled to the Cerrado and scrutinised the Estrondo company. The programme makers cited allegations that Estrondo is guilty of illegal deforestation, land theft and corruption. Their investigation showed that soy from Estrondo is shipped to Amsterdam via warehouses and international traders. This soy ends up in animal feed factories which sell it to farmers who produce for VION and Friesland Campina. These companies supply meat and milk to Albert Heijn, among others. Thus, by buying these products, consumers unintentionally contribute to the destruction of the Cerrado.
WWF threw away chance to do it right
WWF Netherlands' admission of failure of the RTRS is particularly ironic because in 2004 WWF International was fully on course to ensure a supply chain of more genuinely responsible and non-GM soy. In that year, together with Coop Switzerland, WWF launched the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy production. The Basel Criteria had strict protections for the rainforest and also required that Basel-certified soy be non-GM.
According to a source involved in soy traceability programmes at the time, the WWF was pleasantly surprised by the number of production and supply chain players that could successfully participate "in almost no time", based on those very criteria. However, in 2005 WWF abruptly turned its back on its own creation, rejecting the Basel Criteria to initiate the RTRS with a great deal of hype. The RTRS allowed GM soy to be certified as "responsible" and softened the requirements around deforestation. No doubt due to these very factors, it was able to quickly bring in Unilever, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, Bunge, Danisco, Marks & Spencer, and other big corporations. In 2009, Monsanto and Syngenta were added to the list of members.
Even the RTRS's weak standard proved too onerous for one important RTRS member, Aprosoja, representing large Brazilian soy producers. Aprosoja left in 2009 because of the deforestation clause included in the RTRS's principles and criteria.
What happens now?
WWF Netherlands' vote of no confidence in the RTRS raises the questions of WWF International will pull out of the forum or even whether the RTRS as a whole will fold.
We believe the world would be better off without the RTRS because it tries to put a positive environmental spin on fundamentally destructive practices, thus discouraging genuine reform. We recommend that soy suppliers and retailers who want to ensure genuine sustainability make a meaningful and binding commitment to agroecological production that respects the environment and people living in soy producing areas. European lawmakers should tighten up the Commission's deforestation proposal to make it genuinely protective of health, environment, and communities.
But above all, we'd like to see the animal feed sector in Europe move away from feeding imported GM soy and replace it with locally grown, agroecologically produced protein sources.
Another "I told you so" moment
WWF Netherlands' denunciation of the RTRS marks the latest in a long series of "I told you so" moments for GMWatch. Over the years, on many issues, we have been among very early voices drawing attention to uncomfortable facts that were ignored, denied, or minimized by governments, corporations – and even other NGOs, such as WWF. Our efforts often earned us furious attacks by industry-friendly trolls – only for us later to be proven correct.
* Birth defects and cancers caused by GM soy cultivation in Argentina: Back in 2010 we arranged interviews with a scientist, doctor, and rural resident in Argentina who drew attention to the terrible health effects of pesticide spraying on GM soy – including the birth defects and cancers highlighted in the open letter to the RTRS. Only years later did the rest of the world catch up, with journalists and scientists from all over the world probing the GM soy catastrophe.
* Role of a pesticide in birth defects that were being blamed on the Zika virus alone: In 2016 we raised the alarm on the potential role of a pesticide that was being added to drinking water in Brazil in an outbreak of birth defects. The birth defects were claimed to be caused solely by the Zika virus. We were attacked for our efforts, only to be vindicated by scientific research published in 2021.
* SARS-CoV-2 lab leak theory: In 2020 we were among the very first media outlets to publicise the hypothesis that the virus that causes COVID-19 might have escaped from a lab – and to highlight the conflicts of interest of Peter Daszak, the chief denier of the hypothesis, who was at the same time a major funder of the gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and its collaborating US institutions. We were dismissed as conspiracy theorists. But several months later, the lab leak hypothesis had gained enough circumstantial evidence to be taken seriously by the mainstream media.
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