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It might sound like something from science fiction but cutting-edge satellite technology, operating way up in the sky, really can be a weapon against hugely damaging deforestation back on planet Earth.

In 2018, Nestlé became the first global food company to deploy a satellite-based monitoring system, the Starling service, to keep an eye on 100% of the company’s palm oil supply chain around the globe.

Starling was born from a partnership between Airbus and The Forest Trust and has a very clear aim to reduce deforestation by highlighting where it happens and equipping companies like Nestlé, who uses palm oil, to keep track of where and when deforestation occurs in its supply chain.

Systems, satellites and software

A group of Airbus’s satellites called SPOT, known as a constellation, provides a really detailed image (1.5m resolution) of land across huge areas of the planet to the point that it becomes easy to see the difference between mature forest and crop land. That means even small changes in tree coverage are clearly visible.

The system also uses other satellites and radar to beat obstacles like cloud cover and make sure that regular surveillance of the most vulnerable land is always available.

Experts at The Forest Trust then have access to a powerful piece of computer software which can be used anywhere in the world with access to the internet. The programme offers imagery, tracking tools, statistics and insight all fed from the satellites to build up a picture about compliance within the supply chain.

Reports are then shared with Nestlé to give a clear, real-time view of any issues that are emerging.

 

Deforestation: A clearer view

Nestlé has spent nearly a decade working towards a commitment made in 2010 that said none of its products, containing palm oil, would be associated with deforestation by 2020. It’s a pledge that can only really be delivered with a proper overview of what is happening on the ground.

Not only is it a huge challenge to totally eliminate deforestation, it’s a challenge to even track it. Starling helps with the second of those problems, it means Nestlé can make a much more accurate judgment about how much deforestation still exists within its supply chain and allows the company to make interventions more quickly where there is a lack of compliance.

However, it is the effectiveness of those interventions that Starling cannot solve.

Anna Turrell, Head of Sustainability at Nestlé UK and Ireland says: “This is just one step, albeit a really important one, in our efforts to eliminate deforestation in Nestlé’s supply chain.

“Around the clock satellite monitoring means we can act quickly and decisively, in real time, if we see something going wrong but it also means we can be more transparent and promote greater accountability along the supply chain.

“We can publish what we find, where we engage and where we choose to suspend non-compliant suppliers and we will share that information with all of our stakeholders, whether that’s consumers, investors or retailers.

“Starling will speed up our progress and improve the direct engagement we can have with our supply chain so that, across the entire industry, we are addressing deforestation with speed and purpose.”

Transparency is key to Nestlé’s strategy on deforestation and the company has also made available the names of all direct suppliers and mills that it buys its palm oil from, accounting for 91% of the total volume of palm oil that it sources every year.

From 2019, a ‘Transparency Dashboard’ will be available on Nestle.com allowing anybody to see the progress that is being made and the outstanding challenges that manufacturers like Nestlé still have to overcome. The level of detail, regularity of progress reports and clarity about what is happening on the ground is only possible thanks to some very clever technology some 500 miles away.