Knowledge for better food systems

Soya and the Cerrado, Brazil's forgotten jewel

This report, published by WWF in 2011, recognises that demand for soya beans and soya products has risen dramatically in recent decades. In just 15 years, production of the crop has doubled, and the land used to grow soya worldwide now covers an area almost the size of Egypt.
This report, published by WWF in 2011, recognises that demand for soya beans and soya products has risen dramatically in recent decades. In just 15 years, production of the crop has doubled, and the land used to grow soya worldwide now covers an area almost the size of Egypt. The predominant use of the crop is to make soya meal, a major source of protein in livestock feed, especially for poultry, pigs and dairy cattle. The expansion of soya planting has largely been driven by rising consumption of meat, and there is also a significant market for soya oil for use in food, biodiesel and other products. Around two-thirds of soya products are traded. Imports are dominated by China and the European Union (approximately 37% and 28% of global soya imports respectively). Chinese soya bean imports are projected to rise some 50% by 2020. Although the United States remains the largest exporter of soya beans and products, recent and projected export growth is concentrated in South America: in particular, in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. The UK imports more than 70% of its soya directly from Argentina and Brazil. Despite significant improvements in productivity, a rapidly growing land area is being planted with soya to meet demand. In Brazil alone, this area is nearly the size of the entire United Kingdom. Soya expansion has been a significant factor in conversion of the Brazilian Cerrado or savannah. A recent survey suggested that nearly half the original vegetation cover had been lost by 2008, and that it is disappearing considerably faster than the Amazon forest. The further rapid loss of remaining areas of Cerrado is of global concern because:
  • The carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with recent conversion of the Cerrado, estimated by the Brazilian government to be more than half the total emissions from the UK for 2009, probably already exceeded those from Amazon deforestation.
  • The exceptional biodiversity, including more than 11,000 vascular plant species of which nearly half are found nowhere else, represents an irreplaceable global genetic resource. Many Cerrado species are very local in their ranges, and are therefore at high risk of extinction unless a far greater area is effectively protected than at present.
  • The Cerrado is a vital source of fresh water for a significant part of Brazil and neighbouring countries, accounting for more than 70% of water in three major hydrological basins, as well as in part of the Amazon.
  • The native vegetation, fauna and landscapes of the Cerrado are of great cultural importance to a wide range of indigenous and traditional communities, and offer valuable opportunities for tourism and recreation.
The UK is a significant user of South American soya. A variety of measures and changes have been proposed that could help diminish the current negative impact of UK and European soya demand. They include:
  • Improving soya production practices through certification under credible, multi-stakeholder schemes such as the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS), as supported by WWF.
  • Reducing meat consumption and wasteful use, as promoted by WWF-UK. Desirable for a number of reasons including public health and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it would also lower demand for imported protein sources such as soya in animal feed.
  • Using locally-grown crops to provide alternative sources of protein in livestockfeed. Legume crops, for example, could replace at least some of the protein currently provided by soya, although nutritional challenges remain especially for pigs and poultry.
  • Changing regulations that currently ban the use of waste products in livestock feed. For example, the EU is reviewing the ban on using processed animal protein (PAP) in the feed of omnivore species (poultry and pig), introduced after the BSE outbreak in cattle due to concerns about cross-contamination. Lifting this ban would re- introduce an alternative to soya imports, but it would be necessary to overcome issues of public acceptability, as well as the cost of ensuring that herbivore livestock are not fed animal remains and that no livestock is fed the remains of its own species.
  • Sourcing soya from a wider variety of countries to reduce the pressure on South American ecosystems. Options for alternative sources are, however, limited and systems such as traceability and certification would need to be in place to ensure that this does not simply displace the problem to other regions.
Undoubtedly some or all of these measures will prove sound, necessary and feasible. However, they will not individually produce change at the scale and pace needed to prevent significant further destruction of South American ecosystems. For the foreseeable future, the UK and the EU will still need to import soya. It is therefore crucial to engage consumers and producers of soya in practical and pragmatic steps to minimise the negative impacts of its production. Even if it were practical, complete withdrawal of European buyers from the South American soya market would remove their ability to influence production practices for the better, and China would become even more dominant as the world‘s biggest soya importer. RTRS provides a tool for rewarding producers who respect agreed norms for improving environmental and social practices. Sourcing of UK soya from certified RTRS sources, in conjunction with similar moves in other countries, would represent a powerful market pressure to support South American efforts to safeguard biodiversity and reduce emissions from land use change. WWF does not propose RTRS as a "silver bullet" solution to the problems currently associated with soya expansion. However, if strongly supported, continuously improved and combined with other measures outlined above, it could be a pragmatic and effective mechanism for helping meet today‘s market demands while preserving vital ecosystems for future generations. This report should be read in the light of new research by INPE, the Brazilian space research institute (reported by the BBC) that deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has increased almost six-fold between 2010-2011. See here for BBC coverage and here for INPE‘s press release.

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