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Detecting deforestation “through the clouds”: Key palm oil players collaborate in radar-based forest monitoring system

A coalition of ten major palm oil producers and buyers are joining forces to support and fund the development of a new, publicly available radar-based forest monitoring system, Radar Alerts for Detecting Deforestation (RADD). The partnership between Bunge, Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Mondelēz International, Musim Mas, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Sime Darby Plantation, Unilever and Wilmar aims to make it easier for companies and other stakeholders to see deforestation happening in near-real-time and with greater accuracy.

Currently being developed for Indonesia and Malaysia, the RADD system can detect tropical deforestation several weeks earlier than optical-based systems. By using radar waves, the new system can penetrate cloud cover and gather forest change information without being affected by clouds or sunlight.

Because of this, follow-up actions on the ground can be quickly mobilized to improve the sustainability of commodity supply chains. RADD will augment existing publicly available monitoring tools that rely on optical-based satellite imagery, which can be delayed when clouds obstruct the view of forests.

“It is unprecedented to have such a large group of key companies team up to unite behind a coordinated approach taking joint action within the production landscape. Shared responsibility is the way forward,” Niels Wielaard, Director of Satelligence, the company that developed RADD alongside Wageningen University, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“Due to the semi-persistent cloud cover over palm oil landscapes, current other systems based on optical images detect deforestation weeks too late or even not at all. Using radar to “see” through the clouds enables faster response and more targeted engagement with suppliers. Our system also pinpoints the highest-risk areas by separating clearing in tree crop plantations from natural forests.”

“Having science-based analytics based on open and published methods can help to further normalize and depolarize the rather emotional sustainability debate,” he says.

What makes RADD unique is that it is the first radar-based monitoring system of this scale that will make deforestation alerts publicly available. Once the system is complete, the alerts will be available on Global Forest Watch and Global Forest Watch Pro, and the methodology behind the alerts will be published. The new system will utilize freely available radar data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A and B satellites, which orbit the earth every six to 12 days. These satellites provide high spatial detail that will also improve the detection of smaller clearing events.

Palm oil producers and suppliers

Key palm oil producers, suppliers and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of a sustainable supply chain as transparency and traceability trends gather pace worldwide. Consumers not only demand to know what's in their food, the “story” behind the journey of the ingredients is also equally as important.

A thoroughly mapped supply chain is seen as vital for sustainable palm oil.

Unsustainable palm oil production methods are increasingly being shunned by key industry players aware of the associated reputational-risks. Instead, a growing movement towards creating a viable 100 percent sustainable palm oil supply chain is a work in progress, hence the existence and continuing work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and many other pro-sustainable palm oil organizations and initiatives.

“Bunge has long believed in the power of technology to help create a more sustainable future. That’s why we’re proud and excited to see our long-term partnership with Satelligence extended to Global Forest Watch to improve transparency and enable a more sustainable supply chain,” says Robert Coviello, Senior Vice President, Sustainability & Government Affairs, Bunge.

Cargill says it is committed to working with industry partners to spur innovation and drive meaningful change to end deforestation. “We look forward to developing credible, real-time data that is publicly accessible to enhance our ability to act on deforestation alerts,” says John Hartmann, Agriculture Supply Chain Sustainability Lead, Cargill.

Jonathan Horrell, Director Global Sustainability, Mondelēz International, adds: “Technology is fast-evolving to enable sector-wide, near real-time monitoring of the palm sector. Sustainable palm oil production benefits everyone and tools like this bring it within reach.”

Throughout the RADD system development over the next two years, partner companies will receive alerts about detected deforestation events and will provide crucial feedback to improve the system. The open nature of the system will enable companies - plus governments, civil society organizations and concerned stakeholders - to monitor forests using the same information source and standards.

Nestlé’s Global Head of Responsible Sourcing, Benjamin Ware, says the Swiss food giant takes an integrated approach in addressing the risks of deforestation, combining tools like certification, supply chain mapping, on-the-ground verification and satellite monitoring. “We are pleased to support the development of publicly available forest monitoring system like RADD as it will bring accountability and transparency across the industry,” he says.

Enforcing consequences to irresponsible palm oil production

Unilever also says it’s committed to developing a range of technologies that will enhance and accelerate its efforts to address potential issues within its supply chain. “Better radar monitoring is an essential piece of this puzzle,” notes Petra Meekers, Head of Sustainable Sourcing, Unilever. “We always aim to be the first to know and the first to act, so we are pleased to be supporting advanced tools that will make risks known to us even sooner.”

For large consumer goods brands with huge supply chains, it is a big challenge to know and communicate where they stand with regard to progress towards zero deforestation because they are further away from the source and producers, notes Wielaard.

“If you can't measure it, you can't improve it, so our system helps to make progress more measurable and visible. Such as: is the deforestation trend that can be linked to the companies' supply chain decreasing or increasing?” he points out.

Wielaard also gives some good examples of how RADD can be used to map what’s going on on the ground. “With one company, we detected the construction of a small canal encroaching onto their suppliers’ estate. Based on this, discussions with local authorities followed to stop the constriction. In several other cases we could detect clearing of environmentally sensitive primary peat swamp forest, as well as the construction of drainage canals and outlets,” he explains.

“Apart from destroying conservation areas, this makes such areas very prone to fires. After the buyer and supplier made agreements on a stop-work order, our system indicated the supplier ignored the agreement and continued deforesting the area.

“Eventually this led the buyer to end the engagement and remove the supplier from the companies' supply chain. In another case we detected suspected clearing within a forest reserve, and follow up higher resolution imagery indicated the planting of young palms. Several of such cases would not have been visible, or visible too late,” he concludes.




 

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