Web Tool Tracks Deforestation So Food Makers, Sellers Can Monitor Suppliers : The Salt Dozens of food companies have promised to stop their suppliers from clearing forests in order to grow crops or graze cattle. Now the companies have a tool to monitor those farmers from space.
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Don't Cut Those Trees — Big Food Might Be Watching

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Don't Cut Those Trees — Big Food Might Be Watching

Don't Cut Those Trees — Big Food Might Be Watching

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Brazilian scientists say the destruction of the country's forests has increased sharply this year. Those forests often are cleared to grow food. Many big food companies have pledged to stop this. NPR's Dan Charles says some of those companies are watching what their suppliers are doing from space.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Mondelez International may not be a household name, but its products are.

JONATHAN HORRELL: We're the company that makes Oreo cookies and Triscuit and Wheat Thins, for example.

CHARLES: This is Jonathan Horrell, the company's director of global sustainability.

HORRELL: We make snacks. We make nice things to eat. Our purpose is snacking made right.

CHARLES: He says they want to make their snacks the right way, too, without heating up the planet, so the company decided to measure its greenhouse gas emissions. And it realized most of them were not coming from factories or trucks.

HORRELL: It's actually the carbon emissions that are linked to deforestation or forests being cut down in order to produce raw materials that we use as ingredients in our products.

CHARLES: Like palm oil from plantations in Indonesia. A few years ago, Mondelez promised to stop its suppliers from cutting down trees. Dozens of food companies made the same promise. Here's Luiz Amaral from the World Resources Institute, an environmental group.

LUIZ AMARAL: Walmart and McDonald's - all of the major brands have made those commitments.

CHARLES: They promised to get it done by 2020, but most of them are not going to make their deadline. Turns out, it's hard to do. So Luiz Amaral and his colleagues stepped in and created a new online tool for companies to use, including Mondelez. They call it Global Forest Watch Pro.

AMARAL: So the first thing you need to do is actually to log in to the system.

CHARLES: Amaral's in Brazil. I'm in Washington, D.C. But with the miracle of Skype and computer screen sharing, he can show me exactly how it works. I see an image of the globe. It shows which areas are covered by trees.

AMARAL: Which is kind of the Google Maps of forests.

CHARLES: A satellite scans the entire globe every week and updates this map so you can tell if trees disappear from one week to the next. Another satellite monitors the globe for fires every day.

AMARAL: The key innovation here is that the computer is doing all that work for us, constantly looking at those images as they're being taken to identify if something changed on the tree cover - if there is a fire that is happening in that area.

CHARLES: And then Amaral shows me how you can use this to monitor specific farms.

AMARAL: So in this case here, just let me just give you an example. So I uploaded 22 cattle farms in Brazil.

CHARLES: I see a bunch of rectangles and other shapes on this one part of Brazil.

AMARAL: Those are real farms.

CHARLES: He got this information from a public database of land ownership in Brazil. With a few mouse clicks, we see how much of each farm is covered with trees and also how that's changed. He points out one 40,000-acre farm. Half of it's covered in forests. But 15 years ago, we see the whole thing was forest. We zoom in closer. We can see exactly where the trees disappeared.

AMARAL: So you can see here that almost all of the tree cover lost within this region actually happened within this specific farm here.

CHARLES: And specifically within the borders of that farm, so that was intentional. That wasn't just a wildfire.

AMARAL: Yeah. That'll be exactly my assumption.

CHARLES: If a company makes a list of its suppliers like this, the tool will send an alert whenever it detects deforestation right there. So that's the tool. Jonathan Horrell from Mondelez International says his company is already using it.

HORRELL: I think it's actually extremely important because the tool enables you to understand what's actually happening in real time.

CHARLES: But the really hard part is companies have to figure out exactly where their suppliers are. Mondelez is doing that with cocoa farms.

HORRELL: As of the end of 2018, we'd mapped around 93,000 cocoa farms in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, which are the two most important sources of cocoa in our supply chain.

CHARLES: This is easier to do when companies buy food directly from local producers. They often do with cocoa and palm oil, but in other cases, they don't. Farmers who raise cattle may sell them to a local slaughterhouse, not McDonald's. But Amaral from the World Resources Institute says the beauty of this new online tool is it's so cheap and easy to use, even local slaughterhouses can use it. And they have convinced a slaughterhouse in Paraguay to sign up for an account.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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