Soy Agriculture in the Amazon Basin

Soy cultivation is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Seeds from the soybean plant provide high protein animal feed for livestock, and 80% of Amazon soy is destined for animal feed; smaller percentages are used for oil or eaten directly. Today Brazil has 24-25 million hectares devoted to the growth of this crop, and is currently the second largest producer of soybeans in the world.

Originally from southeast Asia, the soy plant (Glycine max) is a nitrogen fixing legume planted in temperate regions throughout the world. Used primarily for animal feed, the United States still dominates the world market. In South America, soy was grown since the beginning of the century in temperate climates of southern Brazil and Argentina. In the 1970’s, however, agricultural research generated new varieties resistant to warm climates, which combined with intensive fertilizer use could yield soy in tropical regions. At the same time, demand for animal feed rose from the crash in the Peruvian anchovy fishery.  Continued demand into the 1990s and early 2000’s created a soy-cattle pasture-deforestation dynamic where soy replaced existing cattle pasture, spurring new deforestation for cattle ranching further into the Amazon. Meanwhile, road improvements, especially the BR-163 “soy highway” in Mato Grosso reduced transport costs and world economic growth increased demand for agricultural products.

Intense criticism of the deforestation caused by soy cultivation in the early 2000’s inspired international advocacy. Numerous studies map the deforestation resulting from soy conversion in the Amazon region. Some even argue that US policies favoring corn ethanol result in increased soy prices, spurring soy cultivation in the Amazon. Impacts from soy cultivation also extend beyond the lost forest habitat: carbon emissions from deforestation contribute to global climate change. Soy uses high amounts of agrochemicals, causing water contamination in major waterways such as the Xingu River. Production is capital intensive and employs relatively few people, although soy production is found to raise income in some areas.

A Greenpeace report in 2006 singled out McDonalds and international commodity firm Cargill as culprits; Cargill’s response forced Brazilian soy traders to not buy soy from farmlands deforested after June 2006. The Brazilian government followed with measures to monitor compliance and deny bank credit to municipalities guilty of deforestation. After several years, satellite monitoring confirms deforestation free soy; the reduction has even proved resilient to fluctuations in the soy market. Soy production has continued, primarily through yield increases but also through expansion into the Cerrado zone of southern Brazil, as well as northern Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay.

The future of soy production and the Amazon forests depends largely on intensification: what are the limits of water and fertilizer use, and can effective governance prevent deforestation linked to soy in countries outside of Brazil. Numerous NGOs work on sustainable and deforestation free soy production. A recent article in Science describes soy supply chains and the slowdown in deforestation.


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