By Philip Newell
According to a recent report released by WWF UK, the increased use of soy beans has had painful consequences for the Cerrado region of Brazil. The Cerrado is the unique savannah south of the Amazon Rainforest. This landscape, once covering a quarter of Brazil, holds an amazing 5 percent of all life on Earth. Since the prehistoric days when there was only one continent, this grassy expanse has harbored not only 11,000 flowering plants (nearly half are found only in the Cerrado) but also countless animal species, including the giant anteater and maned wolf. This rich history also imbues the land with cultural significance, as it has played a key role for over 10,000 years in the culture and religion of a variety of indigenous Brazilian societies.
This rock painting in the Cerrado region provides evidence of human life in the area 12,000 years ago. (Photo Credit: WWF Brazil)
Currently, however, the Cerrado is being converted into farmland for the express purpose of growing soybeans (soya). In only 15 years, production of soy has doubled, now covering an area almost the size of Egypt worldwide. In Brazil, there are 24.1 million hectares planted with soy, equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. Such a prolific conversion has devastated the natural biodiversity of the region. A recent survey suggests that by 2008, almost half of the original vegetation cover had been lost, disappearing at a rate significantly greater than the Amazon rainforest. This also has significant consequences for climate change. According to WWF, in the six year period between 2002 and 2008, land-use change in the Cerrado released 275 million tons of CO2 per year-more than half the total emissions for the United Kingdom.
A whopping 80 percent of the soy grown worldwide is used for feeding cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock, according to the report. Current trends suggest that developing countries will continue to increase their meat consumption, until they match levels of developed countries. If soy remains one of the main components of livestock feed, then soy production will increase. Since most land planted with soy has already achieved maximum production levels (only the Indian region has room for improving yields), demand for land for soy planting will grow.
But according to the WWF report, there are ways to make sure that the Cerrado is protected.
In Brazil, one WWF suggests increasing the amount of nationally protected areas in the Cerrado from the current 3 percent. In addition to national protection areas, Brazil also has enacted the Brazilian Forest Code, which calls for 30 percent of the vegetation in the region to be preserved. Unfortunately, compliance is voluntary, most producers ignore it, and the legislature is facing pressure from agribusinesses to weaken protection measures. Outside of these legal avenues, WWF encourages farmers to apply integrated land use planning to help “reconcile cattle ranching, soya plantations and other crops, with biodiversity conservation” as well as “enable local communities to capture value from Cerrado biodiversity.”
According to the report, nations that import soy need to reduce meat consumption. This is the most direct way, says WWF, to reduce the demand for soy that drives Cerrado degradation. In addition, the WWF has helped to found the Roundtable for Responsible Soy Association, a group dedicated to preventing further conversion of the Cerrado by ensuring a sustainable production of soy. This is a market-driven, voluntary compliance program, similar to the Marine Stewardship Council, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or Forest Stewardship Council.
The WWF also advocates for farmers to use locally-grown crops to reduce their dependence on soy. By feeding livestock crops grown on-farm, costs and imports are reduced. In addition, WWF references an EU ban on processed animal protein as a feed for livestock–enacted in response to mad cow outbreaks– as being a driver of increased soy consumption. If the ban is lifted for omnivorous livestock (pigs and poultry) farmers can rely less on soy for providing protein, and thereby reduce demand.
Have you done anything to reduce your meat consumption? Do you think this report will prompt others to eat less meat? Tell us what you think in the comments section!
Philip Newell is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.