Is feeding soybeans to China’s livestock driving Amazon deforestation?

Impetus comes from Chinese soya demand but the causes of Brazilian deforestation are more complex

Much has been written about China’s insatiable appetite for Latin American soybeans and its effects on Amazonian deforestation. But the story is a complex one, with the causes of deforestation varying between soya-producing states and new research showing that soya-related logistics infrastructure plays a central role in driving deforestation and increasing illegal loggers’ ease of access into virgin forests. A study released this week by Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Institute (GEGI) explains that while increasing Chinese demand for Brazilian soya is significant and positively correlated with deforestation, it is not always a direct driver to the extent that is commonly understood. “Access roads are the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon, even more so than the extractive projects and plantations that they serve,” says Becky Ray, a researcher at GEGI. However, many of these transport infrastructure works are financed by Chinese. In addition to the effects of road building, the relationship between expanding soya plantations and deforestation is dissevered by cattle ranching, the study explains. Soya plantations are expanding into areas either formerly used for cattle ranching or are displacing cattle ranchers further into forested areas. Both China and Brazil are experiencing economic difficulties but trade is projected to grow in the coming years – with uncertain outcomes for Brazil’s forests. Plantations the size of Italy An area of soybean plantations the combined size of the states of Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo, Rio Grande do Norte, and Alagoas is required to supply food for China’s livestock. When added to the farmland used for soybean cultivation in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia, soybean production for export to China covers 300 million hectares, an area the size of Italy. The challenge of feeding its 1.3 billion people creates a mutual dependence between South America and China. The protein-rich legume has been the basis of a trade increase worth tens of billions of dollars since the turn of the millennium as soya is considered the perfect food to fatten up China’s livestock, in ever-greater demand due to the emergent Chinese middle class’ changing dietary habits. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that China’s domestic use of soybeans has grown 11.4% over the last two years, while imports of the product grew 10% over the same period, accounting for about two-thirds of all soybean imports worldwide. It is expected that 110 million metric tons of soybeans will be imported during the 2020/21 harvest, compared with 73 million in 2014/15. According to the Brazilian Environment Ministry, soya accounts for 0.9% of overall deforestation in the Amazon region, in states like Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Pará. Despite the ostensibly low percentage, this is an area equivalent to 47,000 football fields. Meanwhile, domestic production of soybeans in China has fallen and mostly been replaced by corn, a favorite among Chinese farmers. This makes China increasingly dependent on Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, a trio of countries accounting for half of the world’s soya production. And both China and Brazil are keen to improve transport infrastructure to facilitate exports and to keep costs down. GEGI’s report points to major rail and highway projects such as the 4,400km twin-ocean railroad, financed by Chinese investors, that will bisect the Amazonian states of Rondonia, Amazonas and Acre and that will have potentially massive direct and indirect impacts on forested areas. Such projects would facilitate further penetrations into forested areas which are often made by speculative land-grabbers and illegal loggers seeking short-term gains from the illicit timber trade. Pastoral farming often follows these first steps in the sequence before the now cleared – and often dubiously titled – land is bought by large-scale farmers and higher input grain-growing begins, the report explains. The real problem The unprecedented devaluation of the Brazilian real and other South American currencies against the dollar and the drop in commodity prices could lead to strong pressure on land in order to increase levels of production, especially in the Amazon biome. But despite fears of deepening recession in Brazil and falling demand from China, the soya trade is likely to increase significantly in the coming years. The Chinese government’s gradual reorientation of its economic growth model towards one of domestic consumption is expected to continue to stimulate trade. The Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), an international research center, believes it is possible to expand soya production in Brazil without contributing to deforestation. There are an estimated 52 million hectares of “underutilised” pastures, which could support soybean plantations without having to cut a single tree. “If the demand for grain grows in Brazil, does this have a direct impact on deforestation? Not necessarily, because we have an entire area to expand into; pasture. It is much cheaper for the producer to plant crops on pasture than on forested land,” says Juliano Assunção, an economist with CPI’s Brazil program. The Prodes project from the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has shown that expansion of soya farms in the Amazon is more frequently the result of small instances of deforestation on the edges of remaining forests, in areas smaller than 25 hectares. The total number of warnings relating to deforestation of forest degradation in the Amazon between August 2014 and July 2015 exceeded the previous year’s numbers by 69%. “This small-scale deforestation has a very significant regional dimension. In Pará, small-scale deforestation is associated with small owners. In Mato Grosso, medium and large producers are the cause,” says Assunção.