Devastating cost of the soya boom

Posted: 1 June 2011

 The devastating impact of the growing global demand for soya on sensitive environments around the world - such as the little known Brazilian Cerrado - is spelt out in a new report released this week.

In the last 15 years, says the WWF report, production of the crop has doubled, driven largely by the rising consumption of meat, as well as for use in food, biofuel and other products.

Soya is grown predominantly for animal feed and vegetable oil, with the main use being in soya meal, as a source of protein for poultry, pig and cattle feeds.

Around two thirds of soya produced globally is traded, with China being the largest importer (37 per cent) followed by the EU, which uses 28 per cent. Although the United States is currently the largest global exporter of soya beans and products with little land there available for expansion, soya agriculture is booming in South America, in particular in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. Indeed, the UK imports more than 70 per cent of its soya directly from Argentina and Brazil.

Habitat destruction

Amazon, illegally logged to clear land for soya plantations. Photo February 2006. © Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra
A huge area of 1645 hectares in Gleba do Pacoval, 100km from Santarem, Amazon, illegally logged to clear land for soya plantations.
© Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra

To meet this growth in demand, more and more land is being planted with soya; in Brazil alone, the area planted with soya is already the size of the entire United Kingdom. However, this expansion is often at the expense of habitats such as the Brazilian Cerrado, a globally important savannah which is on its own responsible for 5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity and which is currently experiencing habitat destruction at a faster rate and on a similar scale to that in the Amazon.

Additionally, the annual carbon dioxide emissions associated with conversion of the Cerrado (2002-09) are estimated by the Brazilian government to be more than half the total emissions from the United Kingdom for 2009, probably already exceeding those from Amazon deforestation. British food producers, retailers and consumers, argues WWF, have a responsibility to use their buying and eating choices to reduce the pressure on ecosystems like the Cerrado.

WWF-UK is calling on supermarkets, producers and famers to sign up to multi-stakeholder schemes, such as the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS), which was founded by WWF and sets strict environmental and social standards for soya production.

RTRS specify robust criteria for soya production including for the protection of biodiversity, native forests and other areas important to conservation. Additionally, RTRS includes criteria to respect land tenure claims and to ensure fair working conditions for local people.

Changing diets

Commenting on the report, Isabella Vitali, Senior Policy Officer on Livestock and Soya at WWF UK, said: “Through the consumption of livestock raised on soya, UK consumers may be unwittingly contributing to the destruction of some of the worlds most valuable habitats. WWF believes that schemes like RTRS can be an effective way of tackling the problems associated with soya expansion and help to preserve unique habitats for future generations.

“RTRS is not a silver bullet, however, and other ways in which we can reduce the impact of soya agriculture on areas like the Cerrado include changes to our diets, cutting down on waste, and supporting effective legislation to protect valuable habitats.

“Last week saw the biggest threat to Brazilian forests in recent history due to the progression of legislation that significantly weakens forest protection in Brazil. This just highlights the importance of initiatives like RTRS. Soya grown on land cleared in the dramatic rush to deforest that we are currently experiencing could not be RTRS certified.”

RTRS soya is available for sale for the first time this year and WWF-UK is therefore asking businesses in the UK to sign up to the scheme to help to the create demand for the certified soya and to help ensure that the initiative expands. UK members of RTRS already include M&S, Waitrose, Asda and Unilever as well as producers of agricultural inputs, animal feed and biofuels. WWF is asking UK consumers to back the campaign and ask their local supermarkets to sign up to RTRS: more information on the Save the Cerrado campaign can be found at .