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Feedlot Meat Has Spurred a Soy Boom That Has a Devastating Environmental and Human Cost

South America is being taken over by a handful of companies in the soy business that are destroying ecologically sensitive areas and pushing people from their ancestral land.
 
 
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Much of South America is rapidly coming to resemble Iowa. Where one might expect to see virgin Amazon rainforest, lush grasslands or Patagonian steppe, there are now often monocultures of soybeans, extending for miles and miles. People and cultures are disappearing in the transition; small landholders and tenant farmers are being driven off their land (or pushed deeper into untouched forests or grasslands); and pasture-based cattle ranches are being replaced by feedlots. In the feedlots the cattle eat some of the soy produced on the land where they once would have grazed; but an enormous portion of the soy is never eaten in South America. Instead, it is exported, mostly to China or the EU. (The United States is the largest producer and exporter of soy in the world and is thus not a major market for South American soy.)

The change has occurred only in the last few decades. Soybeans now occupy huge swaths of land in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia. Together, these nations make up five of the world's top 10 soy producers. Most significant among them are Brazil and Argentina, which together produced over 105 million metric tons of soybeans in 2008. Half of Argentina's cropland is devoted to soy, and the crop makes up one-third of the country's exports. And for the most part, soy cultivation, processing and exporting took off in these countries since the year 2000. Soy is typically crushed into meal, which is fed to animals, and made into oil used for biofuels or added to many food products.

The changes in farming that have accompanied the soy boom would hardly raise an eyebrow for many Americans, where soy has been a major crop and livestock feed for decades. After all, the U.S. more or less invented and then exported this farming model. The soybeans are grown on large farms, often over 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres), and sometimes on farms significantly larger than that. As the acreage devoted to soy grew over the last decade, the land became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Soybeans are grown using commercial fertilizer, herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate), atrazine, and 2,4-D, insecticides like endosulfan, and fungicides.

In 1996, Argentina was the first to permit GE soy, and now 98 percent of the nation's soy is genetically engineered. Today, Argentina is also home to several weeds resistant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, a direct result of overuse of Roundup on GE soy. From Argentina, GE soy was smuggled and illegally planted in neighboring countries. Brazil legalized GE soy in 2003, and by 2007, some two-thirds of its crop was genetically modified.

Along with the soy comes a model of vertical integration and corporate concentration. Five companies in Argentina -- Cargill, Bunge, Dreyfus, and two Argentinian companies, Aceitera General Deheza and Vicentin -- control 80 percent of Argentina's nearly $4.9 billion in soybean oil exports. Similarly, Cargill, Dreyfus, Toepfer, Archer Daniels Midland, and Nidera control soybean meal. (Argentina's soy meal exports were worth over $7.1 billion in 2008.) Often, farmers contract with these companies, which designate how the farmer is to grow the beans.

As many of the companies are foreign, as are the companies that make the seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, Paraguayans complain of a "triple loss of sovereignty: to rely on export earnings from a single product, transgenic soybeans, the seeds for which are provided by a single company, the multinational Monsanto; loss of territorial sovereignty as large areas are leased or purchased by foreign producers, Brazilians and Argentinians; and also a loss of food sovereignty, because soy uses monocultures and displaces food production for dietary staples of the rural population."

Paraguay is not the only country to see production of dietary staples displaced. Argentinians are also experiencing displacement of cattle ranches and farms that might otherwise produce grains or vegetables. The soy boom has driven up land prices, and it has also driven up food prices, as more land is devoted to soy for export instead of food for the domestic market. Argentina, a beef-loving country, now produceshalf of its beef in its 15,000 feedlots instead of on pasture. Even Argentina's cowboys, called gauchos, are becoming a thing of the past.

As the promise of soy profits gobbles up more land, Argentina is losing some of its fragile ecosystems, like dry forest and the Patagonian steppe. Much of the soy expansion takes place in the country's Chaco region. The same is true in other countries as well, as Brazil sees the loss of its Amazon. However, most of Brazil's soy production takes place outside of the Amazon. Less internationally recognized but more threatened by soy production is the Cerrado, Brazil's savannah that now occupies only 20 percent of its original area. Likewise, Bolivia's soy is centered in its Chiquitano tropical dry forests, not its Amazon, and Paraguay is losing its Atlantic forest.

Just as startling as the environmental cost is the human cost of the soy boom. Certainly, some are getting rich from soy, but as they do, others are losing their land. Peasant farmers in South America, particularly the indigenous, often do not have legal titles to land their families have farmed for generations, making them vulnerable to having the land sold or stolen right out from under them.

In Argentina, the indigenous complain that loss of land as well as deforestation leave them unable to hunt, fish, or gather or produce foods and traditional medicines. The government has responded by handing out meager food aid packages, which the indigenous see as insufficient.

In Argentina's soy growing areas, poverty is 37 percent, much higher than the national average of 20.6 percent. In the province of Chaco, some 20 to 40 percent of the population is estimated to have left because of soy production. There, and in Paraguay, soy displaced cotton, which required more labor than soy and thus provided employment. Peasants who live near soy cultivation also complain of health problems due to indiscriminate pesticide spraying.

Why have soybeans suddenly taken off in South America? A new report by Food and Water Watch traces it to trade deregulation. Since the WTO was formed in 1995, soy imports to the EU's 15 member countries prior to 2004 increased by 51.1 percent. In a world of free trade, soy processing corporations were attracted to the low prices of land and labor in South America (compared to the costs in the world's largest soy producing nation, the United States).

Sophia Murphy, a senior adviser at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, notes that the EU's recent enthusiasm for soy imports might have happened with or without the WTO, as the EU already had reduced tariffs on livestock feed under pressure from the United States prior to 1995. But whatever the cause, the result is the same.

Today, a full 80 percent of EU's soy imports come from just Brazil and Argentina. Where does the soy go? Food and Water Watch traces it to Europe's largest pork and poultry producing nations: Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Since the WTO went into effect, notes the report, soy meal imports to these countries rose by 75.3 percent.

With a cheap source of imported feed, Europe has seen an increase in so-called factory farms, particularly for pork and chicken. (Since the early 1990s, as the EU increased its imports, the price of soy has gradually fallen, although right now prices are sky-high.) For example, notes Food and Water Watch, in 2007, the largest 1 percent of farms produced 74 million pigs, half of all pigs in the EU. The concentration of livestock production on enormous farms leads to environmental degradation. And the increase in cheap meat, often sold through fast food chains, does not help the health of European consumers much either.

Food and Water Watch provides a number of policy recommendations to reverse the trend of increased soy production in South America and consumption in Europe. First, it recommends, agriculture should be removed from the WTO and other EU trade deals. FWW also calls out the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Round Table on Sustainable Consumptions as "industry efforts to greenwash the environmental harm of global, industrial agriculture," and calls on governments to end both direct and indirect support for these campaigns.

Perhaps most simply and importantly, Food and Water Watch urges governments to uphold the law, force companies to pay taxes, and abide by animal welfare and environmental regulations. Additionally, it calls on EU governments to "enforce laws that prohibit monopoly power and economic collusion and prohibit anticompetitive practices" by supermarkets and grain traders. The EU, for its part, seems to be headed in the other direction: it has recently loosened its prohibitions on genetically engineered feed.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
 
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