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Brazilian scientists report a sharp increase this year in clearing forests in the Amazon. There is bad news for endangered ecosystems as well as the world's climate. Deforestation releases large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
There is also a setback for large food companies that have promised to preserve these forests – or at least boycott suppliers that clean forests to raise crops or graze cattle. "Retailers like Cargill, Bunge or Louis Dreyfus; consumer good manufacturers like Mondelez or Procter & Gamble or Unilever; dealers like Walmart and McDonald's – all the big brands have made those commitments," said Luiz Amaral, director of global solutions for goods and finance at the World Resources Institute.
Most of the companies promised to cut all deforestation links by 2020, but few are likely to do so by that deadline. It turns out that it is very difficult for companies to ensure that none of their commodities come from recently cleared land.
So Amaral and colleagues just created a new online tool for companies to use. They call it Global Forest Watch Pro.
Amaral works in Brazil. I'm in Washington, D.C. But with the magic of sharing computer screens, he can show me exactly how it works.
Amaral pulls out a picture of the globe. This particular image shows which areas are covered with trees. Amaral calls it "Google Maps of forests."
This map is made from data collected by satellites powered by NASA. A satellite scans the entire planet every week and constantly updates this map.
So it is possible to see if trees disappear from one week to the next. Another satellite monitors the entire globe for fires.
Researchers at the University of Maryland created software to filter this flood of data and detect the signals of deforestation. "The most important innovation here is that the computer does everything that works for us, by constantly looking at the pictures as they are being taken, to identify if something has changed in the deck; say.
Then Amaral shows me how I can use "I uploaded 22 cattle breeding facilities in Brazil," he says. These farms appear as marked areas in a region of Brazil.
These are real farms. Amaral got the information from a public land ownership database, with just a few mouse clicks we can see how much of each farm is covered with trees, and also how that area has changed.
He points out a farm of 40,000 acres, half of which is covered by forest. But we can also see that 15 years ago the whole forest was. We're zooming in closer. We can see exactly where trees disappeared in this part of Brazil.
"So you can see here that almost all of the tree cover in this region actually happened on this specific farm here, "he says.
The boundary of this farm actually matches almost exactly the deforestation area. It looks like intentional forest clearing, not a fireplace.
"That would be exactly my assumption," says Amaral.
Similarly, a food company can enter the locations of farms where it purchases raw materials. Global Forest Watch Pro will then send an alert when it detects deforestation in this area.
Mondelez International, which makes Oreo cookies and Triscuit biscuits, is already using it. "I think it's actually extremely important," said Jonathan Horrell, the company's director of global sustainability. "The tool lets you understand what's actually happening in real time."
Mondelez has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But when it audited these emissions, it realized that fuel combustion plants and trucks were not the largest part of the carbon footprint. "It's actually the carbon emissions associated with deforestation – forests that are cut down to produce raw materials that we use in our products," he says.
These raw materials include palm oil from plantations in Indonesia and cocoa farm in West Africa.
Companies that want to use Global Forest Watch Pro must find out exactly where their suppliers are, and that can be difficult.
Mondelez does this with cocoa powder. "By the end of 2018, we had mapped 90,000 farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast, which are the main sources of cocoa in our supply chain," he says. Mondelez and other companies are also monitoring land located near factories where they buy palm oil.
This is easier to do when companies buy food directly from local producers, which is often the case with cocoa and palm oil. In other cases, however, the products go through a long chain of middlemen. Farmers who breed cattle can sell them to a local slaughterhouse, not directly to McDonald's.
Nevertheless, Luiz Amaral, of the World Resources Institute, says that even local slaughterhouses can use this new online tool. The nice thing about this tool, he says, is that it is so cheap and easy to use. In fact, WRI has convinced one slaughterhouse in Paraguay to register for an account.