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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.

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."

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