A new report which gathered data from drones, satellite imaging, and field research, shows that farmers carried out massive forest-burnings to develop soy plantations for Burger King. Around 700,000 hectares (1,729,738 acres) of forest were wiped out between 2011 and 2015, affecting jaguars, giant anteaters, and sloths, among many other creatures. It’s not just animals either, indigenous communities are now surrounded by soybean fields, with little resources to support themselves.

Burger King, Burger Pawn

Image credits: Billy Hicks.

Burger King is the world’s second largest burger chain, selling 11 million sandwiches every day. But while all this meat may be cheap and (for some) delicious, it comes at a great cost — two great costs, actually. The first one is your health, which we won’t really go into there, and the second one is an environmental cost. Meat is one of the most unsustainable and least eco-friendly choices you can make. To make things even worse, we don’t even know how some producers get their meat. Like many other providers, Burger King provides almost no information on how its meat is produced, or whether the food that goes into its meals is produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. As it so often happens, this indicates they have a lot to hide.

Among the reasons why meat is so unsustainable is that the animals need a lot of food themselves. Instead of eating the crops, you’re feeding them to an animal. Despite pressure from consumers and NGOs, Burger King has repeatedly declined to reveal how their meat is sourced and where they get the feed from. Burger King scored a big fat zero on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2016 scorecard of major beef sellers’ deforestation profiles. Even though competitors like Wendy’s or McDonald’s are no saints either, they did get much better scores. As many were suspecting, the two Burger King suppliers operating in the area, Cargill and Bunge, show little regard for the environment. Glenn Hurowitz, Mighty Earth’s CEO, said:

“The connections are quite clear. Bunge and Cargill supply Burger King and other big meat sellers with grain. McDonald’s, Subway and KFC are not perfect but they’re doing a hell of a lot more to protect the forests. If Burger King does not respond immediately to people who want to know where their food comes from, then people should shop elsewhere.”

To examine the impact of Burger King’s business model, Mighty Earth went to the root of all things — the soybean that feeds the livestock that the company. Soybean is one of the preferred foods for livestock, with 75% of the world’s production going towards animals. The problem with soybean is that it eats up a lot of space. Globally, over one million square kilometers (almost as much as the entire Western Europe combined) is dedicated to growing soy. For comparison, if less than 10% of that surface would be covered with solar panels, we’d have enough energy to power the entire planet.

Forests, soy, fast food

This is what ‘deforestation’ often means. Image credits: NASA.

Most soy is grown in South America, and most of that soy is grown in deforested areas. The destruction of tropical forests and savannah. Last year alone, nearly 2m hectares of land was deforested in Brazil – up from 1.5m in 2015. In Bolivia, 865,000 hectares of forest were cleared. Not all of the deforestation is because of soybean, but agriculture is without a doubt the main driver. Because Burger King is so secretive about their sources, Mighty Earth had a very tough time piecing things together.

“For this investigation, we visited 28 sites across 3000 kilometers in Brazil and Bolivia, where soy production on an industrial scale is fueling massive deforestation (for details, satellite imagery, and links to additional photos and videos from each site, see our background report). To overcome Burger King’s lack of transparency, we used satellite mapping, supply chain analysis tools, interviews with soy growers and an extensive field investigation to uncover deforestation linked to agribusiness giants in the company’s supply chain.”

Over and over again, they found the same thing — forests were burned for soybean monoculture, with no regards for the local wildlife or populations. Often, fires would get out of control, and when the fires didn’t get the job done, then excavators would tear down the forests. Cargill and Bunge, the two suppliers, had very weak policies regarding deforestation, with Cargill basically giving itself until 2030 to eliminate deforestation from its supply chains — it’s a “clear as much as you can until then” approach. When Mighty Earth’s members addressed local communities, they heard of heavy pollution, including an incident when several children died from drinking water from a discarded pesticide container brought back from a nearby soy field.

A soybean field in Brazil. Image credits: Sam Beebe / Flickr

This is not a peer reviewed study, but reports like this are very important, especially in the face of corporate greed. Uncovering their ways is not easy, but when this happens, action must be taken — if not by lawmakers, then by consumers. Burger King, the end beneficiary of all this, has 15,243 locations worldwide and a profit ranging in the hundreds of millions. Sharon Smith, a tropical forests manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, concluded:

“Burger King is one of the world’s largest fast food companies, but consistently ranks last in the industry when it comes to environmental protection policies. The fast food giant needs to follow its competitors like McDonald’s and demand that its suppliers are not destroying tropical forests as part of their business model.”

You know, when McDonald’s is given to you as a positive example… you’re definitely doing something wrong.