Science - October 18, 2007

No room for criticism at soya conference

Wageningen UR gave a warm welcome to representatives of the Brazilian ministry of agriculture and the Brazilian soya lobby. At times, however, the conference on sustainable soya that these parties had organised together resembled a promotion campaign for large-scale soya cultivation. There was little room for critical comments.

Blairo Maggi (left)
President of the Executive Board of Wageningen UR, Aalt Dijkhuizen, and Blairo Maggi signed a declaration of intention last Monday 15 October during the conference on sustainable soya. The declaration states that Wageningen UR will undertake more joint cooperation with the university of Mato Grosso. ‘We can’t lower global food production. If we were to do that we’d have a big social problem,’ said Blairo Maggi during his presentation. The message was clear: the world needs all the soya it can get from big farmers in Brazil.

Maggi knows what he’s talking about. He is not only governor of the state of Mato Grosso in central Brazil, but also the biggest soya farmer in the world. His farm has 140 thousand hectares of soya, an area as large as the province of Utrecht, and his business includes a processing plant that presses 400 thousand tons of soya beans, harbour facilities and a transport company. Annual turnover is estimated at 600 million dollars. In his presentation, Maggi sketched the context of the deforestation that has occurred as a result of soya growing, and in the press conference said it was not true that large scale soya growers have pushed out small farmers. According to Maggi, there are no conflicts between soya growers and local Indians either. A quick Google on ‘Indians, Maggi, soy’ might cause one to doubt this opinion.

The Brazilian minister of agriculture, Reinhold Stephanes, also absolved the soya sector, but had more convincing arguments. He asked what gave Europeans the right to criticise Brazil. After all, the Brazilian rainforest is to a large extent still intact, while European forests have all but disappeared. A representative of Abiove, the Brazilian association of vegetable oil producers, also spoke at the conference, arguing that Brazil has stricter environmental regulations than Europe.

Dr Prem Bindraban, a researcher at Plant Research International, presented an analysis of the soya sector in which he suggested that it is inevitable that the area of soya cultivation will grow. He made a plea for careful land use planning so that growth is managed sustainably.

The real criticism could be heard in the breaks, however, when a Greenpeace representative commented that the problem now is that the Brazilians think they’ve got the situation under control because they have passed laws. Some Brazilian students could also be heard muttering, surprised that Maggi said he had no problems with Indians, while there have been recent violent uprisings.

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