Here’s a story that crossed my path over two years ago. I continue to find it inspiring how groups that have traditionally fought each other have been able to work together for a common cause – saving a precious part of our planet. I like to think that we’ll see more and more of this kind of cooperation in the years to come.
Huge chickens invaded fast food stores in London and started to ask
customers if they knew they were eating soya from deforested areas of
the Amazon. That was in April. The chickens were noisy Greenpeace
activists… It took McDonald’s only six hours between the first ‘homo
chickenacius’ invasion of its restaurants and the phone call to
Greenpeace to discuss the issue. Why? Because fast-food consumers
started to be choked with McNuggets and McChickens. Ethical
consumption’s appeal is increasing.
Brazil’s foremost business commentator Miriam Leitao was writing in the mass circulation newspaper O Globo about a unique campaign that began four months ago in Leicester Square and culminated last week in Sao Paulo, when some of the world’s most powerful companies took a first step towards saving the Amazon from the ravages of soya cultivation. An unlikely union of Greenpeace, McDonald’s and leading UK supermarkets like Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and ASDA had successfully pressured multinational commodities brokers into signing a two-year moratorium on buying soya from newly deforested land in the Amazon.
Business journalists have often been quick to accuse groups like
Greenpeace of nurturing a knee-jerk hostility to global corporations.
Well, yes, we do hold the view that multinationals are responsible for
much of the environmental degradation blighting our planet. But our
alliance with McDonald’s and other food companies demonstrates that when business is ready to seriously tackle a crisis, we are ready join
I cannot say it came naturally to Greenpeace to jump into bed with the
world’s largest fast food company! But it is a fact that, in this
instance, the company immediately recognised the nature of the problem and sought not simply to put its own house in order, but to use its might to push a multi-million dollar industry towards a more sustainable future. For that McDonald’s European executives must be congratulated.
Home to at least 30 per cent of the world’s land-based animal and plant
species and 220,000 people from 180 different indigenous nations, the
Amazon rainforest is one of the most unique and biodiverse regions on
the planet. Yet in recent times, an area the size of Wales has been lost
every year – that’s equivalent to a football pitch cleared every ten
seconds. Soya is becoming the prime driver of this deforestation as the
crop is used increasingly to feed chickens, pigs and cows for meat
products, including, until recently, Chicken McNuggets.
We conducted a three year investigation into the trade, uncovering a
supply chain that begins with illegal rainforest destruction – sometimes
using slave labour – and ends at the counters of fast food restaurants
and supermarkets in Europe. Using satellite images, aerial surveillance,
previously unreleased government documents and on-the-ground undercover monitoring, Greenpeace campaigners for the first time tracked the trade in soya beans from plantation field to fork, in the form of meat reared on the bean. Given the slice of the market commanded by McDonald’s, the company was an obvious starting point for the application of consumer pressure. What we did not expect was the speed with which the campaign progressed, and the allies we would make along the way.
The April release of our investigation, across three pages of this
newspaper, coincided with a simultaneous invasion by 2m high clucking
chickens of McDonald’s restaurants in seven UK cities. By the time the last of the chickens had been unchained by police from the counter of Manchester’s flagship restaurant, Ronald McDonald had come to the table.
The company very quickly agreed to get Amazon soya out of its chicken
feed. But more than that, it formed an alliance with other UK retailers
– including ASDA, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer – to put pressure on
agribusiness interests operating in Brazil, including Cargill, to stop
destroying the rainforest. Cargill is the world’s largest privately
owned company and has led the march of soya across the rainforest
frontier. If the big retailers will not touch chicken fed on Amazon
soya, so went our reasoning, the pressure on Cargill and the other
commodities giants to source soya from elsewhere would become
An indication of the influence being exerted by the retailers came in
May at a meeting I and my colleagues had with Cargill executives in the
midst of a shutdown by Greenpeace volunteers of the company’s European headquarters.
Our discussions had been preceded by phone calls from UK buyers expressing concern at Cargill’s practices in the Amazon. Cargill’s bosses seemed to have jumped the psychological barrier of dealing with Greenpeace and were ready to negotiate. And they did, in a series of meetings in London and Brazil over the following weeks. These meetings included the president of Cargill in Brazil who was very frank about the problems of legality the company was facing in the Amazon.
Eventually the alliance of Greenpeace and European retailers led to a
two-year moratorium on multinational traders buying soya from newly
deforested land in the Amazon rainforest.
Last week, the agreement was signed in Sao Paulo. The signatories included the US-based multinationals Cargill, ADM and Bunge, the Brazilian Amaggi group, and French-based Dreyfus — between them responsible for most of the Amazon soya market.
Given the scale of the crisis in the Amazon, a two year moratorium is
only a small beginning and falls far short of what is ultimately needed
to protect the rainforest. It is now up to us to monitor the
implementation of the deal to ensure there’s no going back on the
Crucially we have to close any space that might allow companies to go
back in two years time and return to a business as usual approach in the belief that the heat is off. But the deal, if implemented properly,
truly demonstrates the influence consumers can have on events thousands of miles away, and the power that can be brought to bear when business is willing to apply its might to the greatest problems faced by our species and our world.