Food For Thought – Soybean Endangers Brazil Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon rainforest sustains one of the richest concentrations of plant and animal biological diversity in the world. It also recycles rainfall from the coastal regions to the continental interior, ensuring an adequate water supply for Brazil’s inland agriculture. The greatest emerging threat to Amazon rainforests and communities is industrial soy plantations which are claiming bigger swaths of the rainforest.

Brazil is one of the world’s top producers of soybean crop. In the nine states of the Brazilian Amazon, the area under intensive mechanized agriculture grew by more than 3.6 million hectares from 2001 to 20044. Forces driving the expansion of soybean production include lower transportation cost as a result of improved local infrastructure, higher international demands for soybean prices, and rapid economic growth in China (9%per year)5 which consumes great quantities of soybean products.
While soybean offers great economic opportunities for Brazil, huge mechanized, soy monocultures destroy tropical ecosystems, accelerate climate change, and cause human rights abuses primarily to produce agrofuel and livestock feed. The soya industry wipes out biodiversity, destroys soil fertility, pollutes freshwater and displaces communities. Soybean production expands the agricultural frontier not only through fire and deforestation to clear ancient rainforests, but more importantly by pushing cattle ranches and displacing forest peoples further into natural rainforest ecosystems.

“Biodiesel made from soya oil is taking over huge areas of Brazil’s farmland, savannah and forest, with harvests surging from 1.5 million tons in 1970 to 57 m in 2006.”

Soy production has already destroyed 21 million hectares of forest in Brazil, and 80 million hectares, including portions of the Amazon basin. As currently scaled, configured and given expected growth, industrial soy monocultures can never be environmentally sustainable, and indeed may push the Amazon into wide-scale die-back while causing abrupt, run-away warming. Destruction of the Amazon forest is expected to increase the rate of global warming by 50 percent, while causing countless species to go extinct.

Agrofuel based biodiesel can only satisfy a fraction of global energy demand yet threatens the Planet’s remaining natural ecosystems. A new scientific report shows that plant based biofuels directly or indirectly, result in land clearing releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Clearing rainforests releases 86 times more carbon than the annual agrofuel benefit, and Amazon soybeans have a “carbon debt” of 319 years. Agribusiness giants including Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill are some, amongst others, producing and marketing soy in the Amazonian forests.

The Brazilian government had trumpeted 50% reductions in Amazonian deforestation over past years. These decreases are now recognized as resulting from temporary declines in agricultural markets rather than fundamental change in deforestation rates. With rising soy and other agricultural commodity prices, there has been a marked increase in fires and Amazonian deforestation to clear new agricultural lands from primary rainforests. In reaction Brazil has again announced increased agricultural deforestation enforcement, including banning the sale of farm products from illegally deforested areas, and imposing fines for buying or trading illegally produced soy and beef, with military enforcement.

Amazon rainforest sustainability critically depends upon new soybean production being kept out of ancient primary rainforest ecosystems. Further, soy’s environmental sustainability and social justness depends upon respecting rights of local peoples including their food sovereignty, ensuring local land bases and water resources are not exceeded, halting all new industrial soy monocultures in order to properly scale agricultural development, and stopping the use of toxics.

“Brazil has discussed reducing deforestation 80 percent by 2020 as part of its contribution to lowering global carbon emissions. Unfortunately, if soybean consumption continues to climb, the economic pressures to clear more land could make this difficult.”

The Brazil federal government has established a committee involving 14 ministries to design and execute a plan for reducing Amazon deforestation. Monitoring and control of illegal deforestation have been particularly intensified. Additionally, the government created sustainable forest districts where policies concerning forest management should be implemented.
Despite the achievements, challenges still remain. Having reached a phase in which forest protection and sustainable uses are promoted, Brazil needs to make their position permanent with a stronger political and civic will to stop Amazon deforestation.

1. Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil. Environmental Conservation, 28, pp 23-38 doi:10.1017/S0376892901000030
2. Brazil’s Success in Reducing Deforestation
3. Morton, D.C., DeFries, R.S., Shimabukuro, Y.E., Anderson, L.O., Arai, E., del Bon Espirito-Santo, F., Freitas, R. & Morisette, J. 2006. Cropland expansion changes deforestation dynamics in the southern Brazilian Amazon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
4. Sustainable development and challenging deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: the good, the bad and the ugly by C. Azevedo-Ramos