The Soy Juggernaut: Deforestation & Land Grabs in Brazil


You may have seen or read exposés on corn monoculture – notably, the series here at EcoSalon back in November. But there’s another crop that is just as pervasive and potentially problematic. It’s soy, which we will be exploring in a series of articles over the next few weeks.

Soybeans were first cultivated in China at least 3,000 years ago and are now an important worldwide crop for use in cooking oil, animal feed, processed food, and bio-fuels.

The U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and China produce close to 90% of the world’s soybeans. Brazil is now the world’s largest exporter of soybeans, producing about one-quarter of all soybeans, and exporting a large percentage to Europe where most of the beans are processed and used for animal feed.

The soy industry in Brazil started growing in earnest in the 1970s and has been accelerating since the early part of this century. (Between 1995 and 2004 soy output increased by 77%.)

Soybeans, like all beans, nourish the soil by fixing nitrogen, so they are not congenitally bad. But explosive growth of any monoculture crop puts pressure on the environment and the people and other creatures that depend on it.

The soy industry has been blamed for deforestation in the Amazon, and the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But that is a bit simplistic. In some ways, soy is a result of deforestation, not a cause. Illegal logging has been going on in the Amazon for a long time because the wood fetches such high prices. Once the forests are cleared, the cattle ranchers move in. After the cattle deplete the soil, the land is no longer useful for pasture. Soybeans are then planted because that’s the only thing the soil is useful for at that point, which sounds like a good fix for a bad situation.

Not so fast.

Soy is now having its own effect on accelerating the deforestation. National Geographic details how soy brings with it big infrastructure, like the highway, BR-163, that runs through the Mato Grosso, the center of soy, north to the port in Santarém. The road provides access to the forest that didn’t exist before, fueling illegal logging.

The government has tried to control the logging, but with limited resources, rampant corruption by local officials, and disputed land titles, they’ve had minimal success. Recent high demand for soy as animal feed for a burgeoning world population and for use in biofuels have caused the price of soy to skyrocket, meaning that farmers of soy plantations that abut forest are beginning to clear forest land themselves to plant more soy.

Government restrictions and the heroic efforts of indigenous people and activists slowed deforestation for a time in 2003. In 2005 Greenpeace pressured major industrial purchasers of soy to sign onto a 2-year moratorium of soy purchases from newly deforested lands, partially bolstered by the publicity generated by the murder of nun Dorothy Stang, at the hands of criminal land grabbers. The moratorium, which was set to expire in the summer of 2008, was extended for another year last summer.

However, these efforts haven’t been enough. Recently released figures from Brazil show a 3.8% increase in deforestation between August 2007 and July 2008, a period during which 3 million acres of forests were cut.

Added to the American multinationals and rich Brazilian landowners are new players in a new foreign land grab. According to The Guardian, the world food crisis is fueling a new rush to purchase Brazilian land by foreign governments like Saudi Arabia and China.

As the land becomes even more profitable, this new land rush doesn’t bode well for the forest or for the indigenous people who understand how to sustainably manage its resources.

What can we do? The first thing is to begin to question the dominance of processed soy in our food system and vote with our dollars whenever we can. The easiest way is to banish processed food, fast food, and animals fattened on soy. Cook your own fresh, local vegetables, grains and beans from scratch, and look for animal products that are organic, local and have not been produced with soy.

We’ll also be providing recipes using healthy, traditional soy products in the upcoming weeks. In the next article in this series we’ll learn about the hopeful efforts of social movements in Brazil and other countries in Latin America that work for land reform policies that serve the people, not the multinational grain, seed, pesticide, and fertilizer companies.

Image: Clearly Ambiguous

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.