How to grow more soybeans - and protect the Amazon

by Katie McCoy, CDP
Monday, 17 November 2014 22:49 GMT

Workers harvest soybeans at a farm in Tangara da Serra, Mato Grosso state in western Brazil, March 5, 2009. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Is it possible to feed the world without destroying the planet?

The act of feeding the world’s population of seven billion and growing is arguably one of the greatest environmental challenges we face.

As the ranks of the world’s middle class continue to grow, so does consumer demand for a diet rich in meat. In turn, increased meat consumption is leading to increased soy consumption.

China now purchases over 60 percent of global soybeans available for export – a major ingredient in animal feed.

But producing soy comes at a great cost: it’s one of the main drivers of deforestation.

Brazil, the world’s leading soy exporter after the U.S., has this year seen its declining rate of deforestation begin to climb again.

A moratorium on soy grown on newly cleared forest land, introduced in 2006, has been somewhat successful in bringing down deforestation in the Amazon. But China’s continuing demand for soy and Brazil’s desire to become an agricultural powerhouse has driven some production to other critical ecosystems in the country, like the Cerrado.

As the soy moratorium has shown, big business is keen to eliminate deforestation. Producers and retail brands, who are especially aware of growing consumer sensitivity around environmental issues, have been eager to demonstrate their tree-hugging credentials by engaging with certification schemes and working to sustainably source materials.

This year saw an unprecedented wave of no-deforestation commitments from companies, including from businesses that dominate the food industry like Cargill and Bunge.

At the end of this year however, Brazil’s soy moratorium is expected to come to an end. Given the once-more rising rate of deforestation in the region, there will be even greater pressure to ensure we get the balance right between growing enough food to feed the world and protecting our forests.

New research from CDP shows that businesses may not be aware of the looming risk. In recent years NGO campaigns and consumer focus have been on commodities like palm oil, and rightly so.

As the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, palm oil is found in 50 percent of all packaged products on supermarket shelves. Its production has fuelled deforestation in regions such as Indonesia, which is causing growing reputational risks for business.

Now over 80 percent of businesses tell CDP that they have sustainability policies addressing palm oil. But when it comes to soy, the world’s fastest growing agricultural commodity, only just over half of businesses report having a commodity-specific policy in place.

 Addressing deforestation is not just critical to preserving forests; it’s also key to ensuring global food security.  Record drought in central and southeast Brazil this year, which is leaving São Paulo exposed to the risk of having no water, has taken its toll on agricultural production. 

Ironically the likely cause of this crisis is the growing deforested areas in the Amazon as a result of soybean production and cattle ranching.  As leading Brazilian climatologist Antonio Nobre notes: “Destroying the Amazon to advance the agricultural frontier is like shooting yourself in the foot.”

Promisingly, new studies suggest that it is indeed possible for Brazil, which is poised to undergo the largest expansion of agricultural production over the next few decades, to meet food demand by 2040 without felling another tree. The fact that companies are beginning to wise up to the risks that deforestation presents to their business is also a very good thing.

However as recent developments in the Amazon show, this action needs to keep apace with the growing consumer demand, and companies need to start to be proactive instead of reactive in addressing deforestation concerns.

Katie McCoy is the head of forests at CDP, a global environmental non-profit that works to drive sustainable economies. Her primary focus is on removing commodity-driven deforestation in company supply chains.