I. Soy – What is it and how did it get to Brazil?

Soy is a legume grown on bushy green plants that produce pods with two to three tiny beans inside. It was introduced to North America in the early 1800s but wasn’t grown by farmers until 1829. Initially the product wasn’t deemed as valuable or edible to American farmers as it had been in China where it had been grown as a food source for thousands of years; and so, when North American ships left Chinese ports to return home they only used the cheap legume for ballast dumping the beans and replacing their weight with cargo upon arrival. When it was finally proved useful to North American farmers it was grown primarily as cheap forage for cattle and to produce soy sauce and later as a coffee bean substitute. Because of the nutritional value and the wide range of uses soy has, both as a consumable and industrial element, it has been dubbed “the miracle crop.”

One of the most dangerous health trends in contemporary North America has been the increase in weight among the general population. Fast food, sodas and a boom in more sedentary job fields have led to a widening of waist sizes within the United States with two thirds of the adult population qualifying as overweight and one third as obese. While the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association research and push for more healthy lifestyles that include exercise and high fiber foods, corporations generating processed and ready-to-eat foods are adding more and more soy to their products. From typical goods such as tofu, miso, soy sauce, soy milk, and the soy milk products cheese, yogurt and ice cream, to less obvious foods such as baby food, beer, cereal, cookies, soup, flour, salad oils, mayonnaise, canned meats, sausage casings, noodles, and high fiber breads, soy has been integrated into almost every product the typical person shops for in a given week because it is high in protein and fiber. These qualities make it attractive to both vegetarians seeking protein rich foods and people seeking heart friendly solutions to rising cholesterol numbers.

Aside from human consumption soy can also be turned into goods for animal consumption and industrial uses. Soy meal, along with fishmeal, has been used as protein additive for animal feed. It is added to cattle, dairy, poultry, mink, fox and swine feed as well as fish and bee foods. Industrially soy is used as a dispersing agent in paints, inks and insecticides; as an antifoaming agent in alcohol and yeast; as a wetting agent in cosmetics; as well as, in caulking compounds, lubricants, crayons, polyesters, particle boards, adhesives and antibiotics, to name a few. However, soybeans yield 61% more meal than oil, which means that even though soybean oil is getting into everything from glue to ice cream it is the livestock feed industry that drives the soybean market.

Soy made its journey to South America, and primarily Brazil, not through their North American neighbors but it’s thought perhaps via immigrants from Japan. Evidence that soybeans were among the plantings of Japanese immigrants in Brazil as early as 1908 has been located through the Agronomic Institute in São Paulo. During this period the institute was examining the bean for its applied uses and had handed it out to local farmers to plant in their fields. There was also research being done in Rio Grande do Sul in the early 1900s; there they were considering the use of soybeans for coffee.

Production of soy in Brazil mainly took place in Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, Santa Catarina and Paraná before its territory expanded in 1970 to include Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, Goiás, Tocatins, Distrito Federal, Bahia and Maranhão. The original territory is known as the traditional production region and the expanded area as the cerrado production region. The word cerrado refers to dense low vegetation and, in this case, refers the largest woodland-savannah region in South America, which makes up 21 percent of Brazil’s land area. In 1970 soy production began with a cultivation area of 3 million hectares but that area was aggressively increased reaching 18.5 million hectares in 2003. In an initiative to outpace the United States in soy production, Brazilian soybean producers and politicians have decided that 100 million hectares is the desired area for soybean cultivation.

II. What led to the expansion of soy agriculture in Brazil?

In the 1970s soy agriculture changed in Brazil causing production rates to soar from 200,000 metric tons in 1960 to 15.2 million metric tons by 1980, making the country a major source for soybeans in the world. The traditional region produced 96 percent of Brazil’s soybean output in 1970 with the cerrado region producing insignificant amounts until the mid 1980s when both regions produced an equal amount. When inquiring about the sudden increase in Brazilian soybean production, which placed Brazil as the second largest soybean producer and exporter in the world, the factor most usually attributed is the 1973 US embargo placed on soybean exports. This embargo was a response to world price jumps in soybeans after a failed anchovy harvest in Peru. As a protein ingredient in animal feed the decrease in the anchovy harvest would mean a loss of fishmeal for feed so soybean meal was sought as an alternative. The United States reacted to the price jump and anticipated increased demand by placing an embargo on soybean exports. They wanted to ensure sufficient stores for domestic needs. The US was the largest producer of soybean meal at the time, and the embargo caused many countries to begin seeing the US as unreliable so they turned to other soybean producers, including Brazil. However, many factors led to Brazil’s increase in production and most of them were political policies put into effect by the military government that took over in 1964.

Foreign Exchange
The first two factors both deal with foreign exchange; on the one hand they wanted to save it and on the other they wanted to increase earnings from it. Foreign exchange is “the way in which debts between two nations that use different currencies are paid. Foreign exchange rates can have an important effect on a nation's economy, because the value of its currency in other countries affects the cost of both imported and exported goods and services.” (Hirsch, Kett and Trefil, 2002) In order to save foreign exchange the Brazilian government wanted to decrease imports and increase domestically grown products. By doing this they could save foreign exchange by not spending foreign currency, which is worth more than their own, on imported products but instead reserve it for more needed goods. They first implemented this plan in the form of their 1962 wheat policy, which encouraged farmers to plant and grow wheat. As an incentive the government adjusted support prices so that the minimum was a much higher number and extended a great deal of credit to wheat producers. Brazil’s wheat policy benefited the soybean industry because wheat was a winter plant and soybeans could be planted in their fields in the summer. For farmers planting soy was good business, soybeans could rely on the nutrients left behind by the wheat decreasing the cost to grow them and since it was planted in the same fields little work had to be done to prepare the land. In the early 70s the price of soy outpaced the price of wheat and many farmers abandoned wheat altogether leaving fields once dedicated to wheat primed and ready for soybean plantings. With fields already prepared the soybean agriculture was able to expand faster.

In another effort to encourage domestic production, soybean oil was substituted for imported vegetable oil. By substituting soybean oil produced domestically for the vegetable oils they had been importing at a growing pace through the 1960s they not only addressed this goal to save millions of dollars in foreign exchange but also stimulated growth in Brazilian industry because soy is processed industrially. This stimulation of industry in turn would create more jobs and the agricultural economy would expand. By the 1970s they had completely replaced imported soybean oils with domestically grown products.

To address the issue of increasing foreign exchange earnings, the government implemented a policy to stimulate exporting of goods. The concept was that with more countries purchasing Brazil’s goods they would have an influx of higher valued currency. While soybean oil had been valued in Brazil, soybean meal had been seen as a byproduct of oil production. It was apparent that other countries valued it as a livestock feed additive so Brazil began exporting it along with soybean oil. The foreign exchange earnings from exportation of goods had exceeded $1.3 billion by the mid 70s and replaced coffee as the chief export by the 80s.

National Diet
Another aspect contributing to the soy boom was a desire to improve Brazil’s national diet. In the 60s beef was a large source of protein for most people, however in Brazil a majority of the people could not afford beef or other animal proteins. The government felt that an increase in poultry production was necessary in improving the health of their citizens and soy played a key role in this plan. No longer considered a by-product, soybean meal was added to poultry feed which served the purpose of stimulating poultry production rates as well as increasing soy’s uses domestically thereby eliminating previously needed imports. Brazil’s consumption of poultry rose from 217,000 metric tons in 1970 to more than 2 million by 1990.

Industrial Development
The stimulation of industry is another factor involved in soy agricultural expansion in Brazil. As soybean production increased, and the uses of soy became more diverse, the development of industrial technologies became more centered on soy agriculture. Machines used to process several products were replaced with more efficient soybean-only crushers and tractors were purchased at a growing rate for use in soybean cultivation in the expanding cerrado production region. Soybean industry became the driving force behind the development of agricultural industry, stimulating both industrial employment and production.

Food Price Increases
The rising cost of food is another feature contributing to soy’s expansion in Brazil. In order to hold back the rising cost of necessary food items the government felt an increase in soybean production was necessary. The demand for soybean oil rose from 45,000 tons in 1965 to 2 million tons in 1990 becoming one of the most important food items for low and middle class families. Increasing production domestically would ensure that supplies would not run out and the cost would not be driven up.

Territorial Occupation
A central purpose behind all of the governmental policies relating to soybean agriculture between 1965 and 1990 was territorial occupation. Territorial occupation as a non-military objective is one that seems solely confined to Brazil. The idea behind this concept is that a larger portion of Brazil’s landmass was unoccupied or unused by the government and citizens at large, but rather reserved as wilderness and indigenous homelands. The infrastructure of Brazil’s government and cities was relegated largely to the outer perimeter of the country, with the interior consisting of rainforest, savanna and desert regions. Brazil’s landmass ranked the fifth largest behind the Russian Federation, Canada, China and the United States, and yet it is the least densely occupied due to the terrain. The military regime that took control of the government in 1964 wanted to aggressively thrust Brazil forward as a powerful player in the world, to do this they would have to seize control of the continent and make it work for them. They did this by moving the capitol to a newly built Brasília, constructing the Trans-Amazonian Highway that spans 2,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Bolivian/Peruvian border, and by opening the cerrados for soybean production.

The opening of the cerrados for soybean production was directly linked to population growth, a goal of the government. More land area in the cerrados are designated for soybeans than all other crops combined and when soy output increased from next to nothing in 1970 to a quarter of the national production in 1990, so too did the population increase from 6.5 million people to 12.5 million. The impact of soybeans in the cerrados has been so significant that cities in the region became known as “cidades de soja” or “soybean cities.”

III. What impact has the expansion of soy agriculture had?

Soybean agriculture has become big business in Brazil, in 2002 the income from foreign exchange had soared to $6 billion and has only continued to rise since then. While this money is greatly needed to pay off the extensive foreign debts Brazil has incurred, it is at the cost of the environment and the people. The profitability of soybean agriculture has many Brazilian states seeking to boost their economies by converting subtropical and tropical areas into soy production regions. With no room for expansion in the south and southeast the central and northeast portions of Brazil, along with the abundant cheap land in the Amazon region, have been targeted. Such an intrusion by agriculture in highly forested areas has, and will further, impact the environment, endangered species and the livelihood of people in these areas.

Of particular concern is the Amazon region, where the neotropical rainforest is located. Although clearing large areas for cultivation has been successful in temperate and subtropical regions in the south, it is devastating to tropical regions. The prairies, temperate forests and savannah ecosystems in which soybeans had previously been planted are sustainable with proper management because nutrients are stored in the soil. Using enrichment techniques, crop rotation and soil conservation measures production can be maintained in these areas indefinitely. The same is not true of tropical regions, where the soils are largely infertile and nutrients reside in the top layer, which consists of less than one inch of leaf litter. Lacking significant amounts of topsoil the leaf litter becomes the most important layer, releasing nutrients as it decays in the humid environment created by the forest canopy. Plants in the Amazon absorb these nutrients through their roots and then store them. When farmers move into an area seeking to clear the forest to plant crops such as soybeans they use up their plots of land after as few as 3 years, making the land infertile and unusable for future use. As a result they have to move on, clearing more land and creating more infertile soils where once there was a lush green canopy and diverse plant life. Intensive farming leaves behind patches of land that the forest can not reclaim, an example of which can be seen in an area of 35,000 square kilometers in Pará. After a relatively brief period farmers had to abandon it when the land became unproductive; 50 years later the forest has not yet been able to recover. That said, the cerrado region is one of the least-protected ecosystems in Brazil and has suffered major losses due to soybean agriculture. The few areas of cerrado remaining are hotspots of biodiversity.

Deforestation in the Amazon is largely spurred onward by economic development projects such as soybean’s agricultural expansion. Brazilian soybean harvests are largely pre-financed by international corporations and multinational fertilizer and pesticide companies that also supply technology packages. Driven by greed and a desire for power, high-level decisions are made either before environmental and land capability studies can be carried out or in spite of their negative warnings, making the projects irreversible. On top of that, the building of roads such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway creates more accessibility to the interior and speeds the colonization and deforestation process simultaneously.

Mato Grosso is the third largest state in the Amazon region and the largest soybean producer in Brazil. Prior to agricultural-based alterations its terrain consisted of 50 million hectares of Amazon forest and 40 million hectares of chapadões (flat cerrado highlands) and campos (fields). The expansion of soy agriculture in Mato Grosso has largely been influenced by the development of soy varieties adapted to its tropical climes, where it had previously been unable to grow. At the same time an influx of Brazilians hoping to colonize the area is occurring due to expanding large-scale agricultural developments in the south, which leaves little land for small-scale farmers. One of the most biologically diverse regions, the Amazon basin makes up forty-six percent of Moto Grosso’s land area. This area is home to thousands of plant species, hundreds of mammal species and 1,600 bird species. Many of these species are threatened by soybean expansion as roads bring more and more colonists seeking to farm the tropical region.

Mato Grosso is also the leading Brazilian state in deforestation with 30 million hectares having been clear-cut and replaced by plantations. Much of this has been done through the setting of forest fires, a common practice used by farmers to expand field areas. Because of staff shortages protection agencies can’t keep a close eye on those that illegally clear land and penetrate into protected areas and indigenous reserves. Indigenous reserves in particular are vulnerable as many are awaiting demarcation of their lands and do not thus far have legal claim. One such group looking the other way while its farmers are penetrating indigenous reserves is the Maggi Group. The Maggi Group trades and exports 90 percent of the Brazil’s soy to the United States and Japan and receives financial backing from both American and European banks. Currently the Maggi Group has over 95,000 hectares in the Amazon dedicated to the production of soybeans. When shown a map of the Maggi Group’s intended soybean expansion areas the superintendent director of Hermasa, their transportation agency in Amazonas, exclaimed, “Where do you have this map from? It’s full of indigenous reserves!” (Bickel and Dros, 2003:p17) Although the impact of deforestation can be devastating, those in power usually ignore it. It is far easier to see the dropping bottom line than it is to quantify the damage being done to an area thousands of miles away.

Another problem presented by agricultural expansion is the heavy use of pesticides in soybean fields. Not only can drinking water become contaminated but also pesticides spread by air can be dispersed in areas broader than their intended application. Aerial application methods present problems to farmers who are attempting to grow and market organic soybeans because winds can carry the pesticides into their fields. With application methods varying, a range of 5 to 10 liters of pesticide is applied per hectare of soybean field. In Mato Grosso 4.3 million kilograms of empty pesticide containers are collected each year, a number estimated to be much larger if abandonment of containers in the wild is factored in.

One of the positives often touted concerning expansion of soy is that of increased employment opportunity to local communities, however this has not proven to be the case. In actuality there is very little permanent employment opportunity for locals, with only one worker per 200 hectares of soybeans after the lands have been cleared. Labor-extensive mechanized soy farming replaces small-scale farming and other livelihoods, and construction of new ports for transportation out of the Amazon has displaced fisher families. In fact, in contrast to paying laborers at all is the fact that Mato Grosso and Pará are states in which slave labor is most widely used in agricultural activities. In 2002 alone over 723 cases were reported out of Mato Grosso, with victims of the practice stating they were made to apply pesticides without protective equipment, were charged for necessities and were housed under plastic tarps in fields without sanitation or health care. With the landless moving into the Amazon, and specifically into Pará and Mato Grosso, after being uprooted by agricultural expansion in the south, the opportunities for soybean and other crop farmers to obtain slave labor seem endless.

A more recent development in soybean agriculture is the production of genetically modified soybeans and their introduction in Brazil’s soy market. The controversy surrounding GM soybeans in Brazil has been ongoing for years. With the rest of the world’s soy producers having already included GM soybeans into their fields Brazil has become the only source of non-GM soybeans. This presents Brazil as a major threat to producers such as the United States, who fear Brazil will gain an economic advantage and are pressuring Brazil’s farmers and regulators to begin planting GM seeds. Largely Brazil’s cultivation areas are dedicated to non-GM plantings however some GM soybeans have crossed the borders into Brazil. In 1998 Brazil’s National Technical Commission on Biotechnology opened the market for GM soybeans but NGOs managed to halt that process by getting a judicial ruling in 1999 that required an economic impact assessment for transgenic soybeans. Despite the fact that it is illegal some soybean producers have already begun planting GM soybean seeds. They see the GM soybeans as being more profitable because only one application of chemicals such as Roundup are necessary, saving them money. Not all of the impacts of GM crops have been assessed yet, the discovery that pollen from transgenic maize has been killing monarch butterflies has caused more than a little hesitation about mass adoption of GM crops. What is certain is that the glyphosate herbicides used in conjunction with GM crops such as soybeans has been linked to a host of health risks from reproductive disorders and genetic damage to liver tumors and developmental delays in mammals.

IV. What measures have been taken to counteract/slow soy’s impact?

In 2001, Philip Fearnside called for policy makers in Brazil to make changes that would address the impacts of soybean expansion. He stated that protected areas should be created before soybean agriculture has expanded to all Brazilian frontiers; he encouraged the elimination of subsidies that speed soybean expansion; he called for studies that assessed the social and environmental costs of expansion, as well as financial; and he demanded the strengthening of the environmental-impact regulatory system so that the indirect impacts of infrastructure were also taken into consideration.

Policy makers within Brazil have been slow to address the problems created by their number one crop, but they are working with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International (CI). TNC’s interest is focused on the poisoning of the environment and Brazil’s people caused by chemicals used in soybean agriculture. It has started an initiative with over a hundred medium and large scale farms in which they’ve utilized both satellite images and people on the ground to ensure the proper measures are being taken for environmentally sound soy farming. This was the groundwork for a pilot program to be carried out with thirty farmers that follow eco-friendly policy set up in Brazil’s legislation.

On the other hand, WWF’s work is largely in reaction to the rapid disappearance of rainforest due to deforestation. They used satellite imagery to track the disappearance of 10,000 square miles of rainforest in just under a year’s time, a figure larger than the average being reported at the time. WWF is working on several projects that ensure proper land management and usage, however their most notable contribution is the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) program. This program, which started in September of 2002, has secured over 20,000 square miles of tropical rainforest as protected area, including one section of 15,000 square miles known as the Tumucumaque National Park. Along the same lines CI has been involved with federal and state agencies in Brazil to form parks and nature reserves that will keep hotspots like the cerrados safe for its inhabitants and prevent the extinction of creatures such as the giant ant-eater. By forming conservation corridors they hope to prevent overcrowding of species that would be caused by the encroachment of people and agriculture.

The damage carried out in the tropical rainforest is largely irreversible; it will take generations for the forest to recover, if it’s capable at all. The measures being taken by CI and WWF to create reserves, as a preventative action, is the most effective way to ensure some amount of the ecosystem will remain, but it is not fail-safe. The borders of these reserves will have to be closely monitored, the policy makers, state officials, farmers and locals will all have to be involved in the plan to make sure that farmers don’t cross their borders and plant crops illegally. Only by making the preservation of the rainforest, cerrados and other environments a priority of all groups can counteracting the effects of agricultural expansion truly be successful.

Bickel, Ulrike and Jan Maarten Dros, 2003 The Impacts of Soybean Cultivation on Brazilian Ecosystems. Three Case Studies commissioned by the WWF Forest Conservation Initiative.

Caviglia, Jill L. and James R. Kahn 2001 Diffusion of Sustainable Agriculture in the Brazilian Tropical Rain Forest: A Discrete Analysis. Economic Development and Cultural Change 49(2):311-333.

Conservation International, 2004 Biodiversity Hotspots, www.biodiversityhotspots.org.

Fearnside, Philip M. 1987 Deforestation and International Economic Development Projects in Brazilian Amazonia. Special Section: Internationally Funded Development in Tropical Countries, Conservation biology 1(3):214-221.

Fearnside, Philip M. 2001 Soybean Cultivation as a Threat to the Environment in Brazil. Environmental Conservation. 28(1):23-38.

Hirsch, E.D., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, eds. 2002 Foreign Exhange from Houghton Mifflin Company: The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin.

National Institutes of Health 2005 Weight-Control Information Network. http://win.niddk.nih.gov/statistics/#preval.

The Nature Conservancy 2005 Sustainable Soy in the Amazon. www.nature.org

Soy Stats 2005 A Reference Guide to Important Soybean Facts and Figures. www.soystats.com/2005/. The American Soybean Association.

Valdes, Constanza, Mark Ash and Antonio C Roessing 2005 Economic Impacts of GM Soybean Adoption in Brazil. 9th International Conference on Agricultural Biotechnology: Ten Years After. International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR). Ravello, Italy.

Warnken, Philip F. 1999 The Development and Growth of the Soybean Industry in Brazil. Iowa State University Press: Ames.

World Wildlife Fund 2003 Brazilian Government Reveals Alarming Rate of Deforestation in Amazon. Press Release 07/02/2003.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.