Good Food for Cities

Breaking the chain of deforestation starts with supermarkets

September 12, 2023
Maarten Corten
Communication & Citizen Engagement

“I don’t want to unknowingly contribute to deforestation and other human rights violations.” That is the message to supermarkets from one participant in our citizen panels. In these panels, citizens discussed the results of Superlist Environment, a study on the climate and environmental efforts by Belgian supermarkets. Participants expressed their outrage at the lack of decisive policies, but above all they gave an insight into their own actions and thought processes. Of course, no one wants to contribute to deforestation, but most of us simply don’t have the knowledge or necessary resources to do something about it. Because people want to eat sustainably, but they don’t seem to succeed. They are caught in the so-called value-action gap. Supermarkets can help citizens bridge that gap by making deforestation-free food the default option.

Driving forces

Rikolto’s citizen panels are part of EIT Food’s European SUCCESS project, in which consumers and supermarkets are working together to find ways to simplify sustainable consumption. More than 80% of our food in Belgium is bought in supermarkets, so they hold the key. Moreover, more than 80% of the Belgian retail market is owned by just five supermarket chains. This ‘big five’ connects hundreds of food producers with millions of people, so they play a very important role. For instance, Belgian supermarket chain Colruyt recently put pressure on multinational Mondelez in a price dispute by no longer offering its products on their shelves.

Supermarkets are still missing a lot of opportunities in the fight against deforestation.

Supermarkets do not just act as gatekeepers to determine which food is put on the shelves. Through their product range, promotions, shop environment and policies, they also influence what, and how much we eat. That is why supermarkets can greatly contribute to the much-needed shift to ecologically sustainable food systems.

Last year’s Superlist Environment study, conducted by think tank Questionmark in collaboration with Rikolto and Test Aankoop, showed that Belgian supermarkets are taking few effective measures to make eco-friendly food the norm. In the fight against deforestation as well, supermarkets are still missing a lot of opportunities. After all, policies against deforestation mainly focus on generic brands and are rarely airtight. By buying certificates for deforestation-free soy and palm oil, supermarkets are able to cover their products in the books. However, De Standaard’s series on conflict soy illustrates that this approach is not working.

Superlist report

The full report is available in English.

Download now!

Together with citizens and governments

So, it is high time to step up, together with citizens and governments.

Above all, make sustainable and healthy the easiest choice for everyone.

Firstly, citizens can create the necessary support for structural changes. Everyone is sensitive to price, but research shows that convenience is also a deciding factor. Above all, make sustainable and healthy the easiest choice for everyone: we need to send that message much more strongly to supermarkets and governments.

Second, the various governments can encourage supermarkets to take action, and they can safeguard sustainability and health against competition through targeted legislation and statutory lower limits. The European Deforestation Regulation is already one important and targeted tool. The EU is the second largest importer of products that contribute to deforestation. By requiring fully deforestation-free products from its importers, there is a real chance of deforestation-free chains worldwide.

In addition, now more than ever is it up to supermarkets to leverage their central role in our food chains for more sustainability. The Superlist study not only highlighted what supermarkets are already doing, it also had experts make recommendations.

‘SuperDialogue’, a panel discussion in December 2022 organised by Rikolto to discuss Superlist findings and recommendations with retail and sustainability stakeholders.

For instance, supermarkets can publish a concrete action plan against deforestation and report on it annually. They can also work on a purchasing policy that excludes both deforestation and land conversion, taking into account the entire product range, not just generic brands. The European Deforestation Regulation is a first step in this direction. Putting these recommendations into practice will require supermarkets to cooperate with processors and farmers in the long term. Only with shared and sustained investments will you achieve truly sustainable and equitable food chains.

Specifically for soy, supermarkets can also strongly increase their efforts for the so-called protein shift, the shift to a more plant-based diet. Soy for animal feed is the biggest driving force behind food-related deforestation in Belgium. Supermarkets should best align their efforts for this protein shift with their policies against deforestation.

Of course, these are not cut-and-dried solutions. However, the key players in our food system definitely need to keep them in mind. That way, we can move as quicky as possible towards a shopping cart free of deforestation and other human rights violations.

If you have any questions regarding Superlist, do not hesitate to contact:

Maarten Corten, Communication & Citizen Engagement,

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