Student - October 12, 2006

Soya trade a threat to rainforest

Does soya cultivation lead to deforestation in Argentina and Brazil? The question was posed by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture. It certainly does, is LEI's answer, if not directly, then indirectly. And the intensive Dutch livestock sector is still a big consumer of soya for animal feed, even though most of the soya from Latin American now goes to China.

The economics research institute LEI made a survey of the soya chain for the ministry of agriculture, upon which the latter could base discussions. Pressure groups such as Milieudefensie are a vocal lobby against factory farming. However, they are not only concerned about animal suffering, but also deforestation in Argentina and Brazil. The LEI report confirms that the cultivation of soya in these countries leads to the felling of rainforest.

In Argentina there is a direct relation between the increased cultivation of soya and deforestation. In Brazil the relation is indirect, according to the LEI report. Forest is not cut down to grow soya, but to make land available for extensive cattle grazing, and the land that was previously used for livestock is turned over to soya cultivation. Soya is important to the economies of both countries. Soya exports account for a quarter of all Argentina's exports; for Brazil the proportion is about a tenth.

According to Siemen van Berkum, a researcher at LEI, both Argentina and Brazil could increase their soya production without cutting down more rainforest. ‘For example, they could rotate more between arable and livestock farming in the Brazilian Cerrado. But so far this hasn’t happened, because it’s cheaper for soya farmers to cut down new forest than to use existing land more efficiently.’ According to Van Berkum there is a lack of legislation concerning land ownership and forest protection. ‘Where there is protection on paper, enforcement is hampered by bribery and corruption at local government level.’

It is clearly a lucrative business, and there is no end in sight yet to the increasing demand for soya. Until 2002, Europe was the biggest importer, but now China has risen to first place. Nevertheless soya imports in Europe remain high. Nine million tons a year enter Europe through the port of Rotterdam. Two-thirds of this goes on, in processed or unprocessed form, to other countries. That still leaves a third that is used as feed for the intensive Dutch livestock sector. This makes the Netherlands the biggest importer of soya beans and soya meal, a by-product from soya oil production. The meal is used as animal feed.

And if the Dutch intensive livestock sector were to disappear, would that save the rainforest in Brazil and Argentina? ‘No,’ says Van Berkum, ‘Demand from China is already far higher.’ Milieudefensie takes a different view. ‘The Netherlands remains the second biggest importer of soya in the world. It is strange to excuse yourself by pointing to a worse offender,’ says Wouter van Eck, the campaign leader at the environmental organisation.

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