Soybeans in Paraguay: A Boom for the Economy, Bust for Environmental and Public Health

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By Carly Chaapel

Soybean fields extend for miles on what was often thickly forested land in Paraguay. (Photo credit: MercoPress)

They are in bread, peanut butter, cookies, coffee creamer, crayons, candles, cows, and even cars. Soybeans, hailed as a “miracle crop” by many, have been harvested, pulverized, and processed to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to go a day without using them in some way.

In 2011, the United States and Brazil were the top two soybean producers in the world. Though Paraguay only contributes 3 percent of the global soybean supply, the rising demand for this cheap oil and protein has dramatically altered the Paraguayan agricultural landscape. Oxfam International executive director Jeremy Hobbs recently highlighted in the New York Times the destructive power that soybeans may have on the country’s entire political and economic stability.

This past June, President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay was impeached because of strong opposition to his agrarian reform and deaths during an attempt to remove squatters at a large farm belonging to a political opponent. He was a strong advocate for agricultural reform that would redistribute land and pull many of his people out of poverty. Just 2 percent of the Paraguayan population owns over three-quarters of the arable land.

Since 1996, over 1.2 million hectares of Paraguayan forest have been cleared and replaced with large swaths of treeless soy fields. Paraguay is currently the fourth largest exporter of soy, and much of the harvest is shipped to Europe and China as cattle feed and biofuels. According to the World Bank, however, undernourishment affects 10 percent of the population in Paraguay. Regardless of Paraguay’s booming US$1.6 billion soy export economy, 40 percent of the population still lives in poverty.

With a valuable carbon sink disappearing and biodiversity on the decline, land that could feed a country’s people with a variety of nutritious foods is, instead, being used for energy-intensive animal production and gas-guzzling vehicles. Pressure to convert farmland has displaced 100,000 local small-scale farmers within the past 20 years, pushing the landless poor into city slums and unacceptable living conditions.

For those concerned about global economic growth, this choice of land use is justifiable if the International Monetary Fund has accurately predicted a growth rate of 8.5 percent in the next year. Paraguay’s economic future may be bright, but Hobbs predicts it will also be riddled with conflict if scarce land is used for fuel instead of food for those in need.

To read the full article, click here.

What do you think? Does the soybean help or hinder our efforts to reduce world hunger? Tell us in the comments below!

Carly Chaapel is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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