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McDonald's french fries might not be the best things for your health, but they could soon be a little less destructive for the planet.
On Tuesday, the fast food giant announced that it planned to eliminate any links to deforestation in its products. Though the announcement covers all of the goods in its restaurants, McDonald's will place the greatest emphasis on cleaning up its sources of beef, poultry, coffee, packaging, and palm oil.
"Making this pledge is the right thing to do for our company, the planet, and the communities in which our supply chain operates," McDonald's vice president of supply chain and sustainability Francesca DeBiase said in a statement. "We're excited to continue collaborating with our supplier partners to achieve our goals."
The company is the first in the fast food industry to make a deforestation pledge that addresses not only palm oil but also its entire product line. They're expected to roll out specifics on each item later this year, said Lael Goodman, a tropical forests analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). And, according to McDonald's, its products will be free of any links to deforestation by 2030.
"It's pretty exciting that it is covering so much," Goodman told VICE News. "We're really hoping that, especially for palm oil, it's much sooner than that— as soon as possible, because forests are being cut down every day for these commodities."
But even if it halts its forest destruction, McDonald's remains a large contributor to climate change just by producing so much beef and poultry. According to the UK think tank Chatham House, emissions from livestock, mostly methane from the waste produced by cows, makes up almost 15 percent of global emissions. Sixty-five percent of livestock emissions come just from beef and dairy production.
The world lost 50,000 square miles of forest a year in the first decade of the century, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, which accounted for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Palm oil is largely produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, where large swathes of biologically diverse tropical forests are cleared to make way for monocrop plantations of the cheap oil. Between 1990 and 2010, the area devoted to palm oil trees increased 600 percent, according to a 2012 study led by researchers at Yale University. Sumatra and Borneo lost 40 percent of their forests to palm oil expansion between 1990 and 2005.
Slash and burn techniques from clearing forests releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much of the forest that has been converted to agricultural production in Indonesia and Malaysia sits atop carbon-rich peat soil, which further contributes to climate change when its burnt or drained of moisture.
McDonald's uses palm oil to make its french fries and chicken, and it can be found in some baked goods and sauces, Goodman said. Like any commodity, palm oil flows through an often-opaque chain of producers, distributors, and wholesalers, making sustainability commitments difficult to verify.
"A lot of times the good palm oil is mixed with oil that isn't coming from good places," Goodman told VICE News. "It's really tough, but I think companies are starting to see that it's more doable."
The burger chain also says it will create sustainability criteria for the feed used to raise its cows and chickens, which often includes soy. According to the World Wildlife Fund, soybean production contributed to the loss of more than 5,400 square miles of forest annually in Brazil's Cerrado region between 2002 and 2008.
"The industry as a whole has really started to move in the right direction, but there's a lot of work to go," Goodman told VICE News. "Because it's such a complicated supply chain, a lot of players have to be on board. McDonald's has a sizable challenge in front of it."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro
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