Over the past year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has changed the emphasis of its zero-deforestation campaign from palm oil to beef cattle and soybeans. Why? This progressive non-governmental organization (NGO) uses science to help solve some of our world’s most pressing problems. It is rethinking its tropical deforestation campaign because the data shows that beef and soybeans are the true drivers of deforestation, not palm oil. We appreciate that Doug Boucher, scientific advisor to the UCS Climate and Energy program, admits in his blog that UCS had its priorities wrong. While many in Malaysia are still reeling from unsubstantiated attacks, it’s a relief to know that our oil palm plantations will finally be recognized for the benefits they provide our people and our planet.

Boucher references a study by Climate Focus demonstrating that global corporations with commitments to limit deforestation have their priorities backwards. The report lists the major agricultural commodities linked to deforestation and the active campaigns related to these drivers.

Boucher writes, “The data is pretty clear: by far the biggest driver of deforestation is beef. Soy is second, but far behind in terms of importance. And palm oil and wood products are even smaller drivers, causing only about a tenth as much deforestation as beef.”

He continued: “You’d expect that corporate priorities, as shown by their pledges to eliminate deforestation, should reflect the relative importance of these four drivers, at least approximately. But Climate Focus found that in fact, it’s the opposite.” Only 12 percent of companies have pledges concerning beef, just 21 percent against soybeans, but 59 percent have palm oil pledges.

“The more important a commodity is, the less likely that a company will have pledged to eliminate the deforestation that it’s causing,” wrote Boucher.

Boucher admits that there were emotional reasons to focus on palm oil, such as the “incredibly cute and charismatic” orangutans. “But the end result was that we concentrated on getting corporate zero-deforestation commitments relating to crops that weren’t the main causes of deforestation.”

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