Thursday, April 18, 2024

Part 2 – Biodiversity and Habitat Loss from Soybean Production

This report is taken from the following main sources by James O’Donovan (VSM) May, 2018:

  1. WWF, The Growth of Soy, Impacts and Solutions, 2014. 
  2. WWF, Website Accessed Jan, 2018. 
  3. Chatham House, Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains, 2016. 
  4. Mighty Earth and Rainforest Foundation Norway (ME&RFN) The Ultimate Mystery Meat, Exposing the Secrets Behind Burger King and Global Meat Production, 2017. 
  5. ME&RFN Mystery Meat 2, The Industry behind the Quiet Destruction of the American Heartland, 2017. 
  6. ME&RFN The Avoidable Crisis, The European Meat Industry’s Environmental Catastrophe, 2018. 
  7. FERN Soybean Briefing Paper 2017. 

In 2016 The US, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay produced 85% of the world’s soy.  Growing soybeans often means evicting indigenous people and destroying large areas of natural habitat, packed with flora and fauna, to make way for agricultural land.  In all of these countries soybean cultivation has taken place at the expense of indigenous people (historically in the US) and natural grasslands and forests.  Biodiversity is in decline in tropical regions according to WWF’s Living Planet Index.  Species populations in tropical regions have fallen by an average of 60 per cent since 1970. 

The North American Prairie 

Grassland once covered around one-half of the landmass of the 48 contiguous states of the United States.  From west of the Mississippi River, the great prairies stretched for some 400 million ha (4 million km2).  Native peoples managed the land long before European settlement, using interventions, particularly fire, to maintain huge areas of grassland as habitat for wild bison and countless other species.  From 1850 to 1950, before the soy boom, over 100 million ha (1 million Km2) of grassland were lost, mostly converted to cultivated cropland.  The soy story in North America began with World War II, with a shortage in domestic oil and fat due to decreasing imports of East Asian oils.  A further 100 million ha (1 million Km2) was lost between 1950 and 1990, with roughly two-thirds ploughed up for crops.  The United States became a major exporter of soy and maize to Europe and Russia.   


Centuries of land conversion mean that the large majority of US grasslands have already been degraded or converted to agricultural use.  Conversion of these highly erodible lands into production is in part what led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  During the drought in 2012, there were sporadic dust storms in Oklahoma and Kansas due to soil tillage.  Current high corn and soybean prices, and the demand for biofuel feedstocks and the Renewable Fuels Standard, are credited as driving some of the most significant changes in land use in recent US history.  Between 2006 and 2008 the area on which corn and soybean was harvested in the United States increased by more than 3.2 million ha; nearly one-third of this increase came from converting grass-dominated land.  Federal government policies to support agricultural production in the United States through protection or subsidies, coupled with periods of high prices for agricultural commodities, have long provided incentives to convert grasslands to crop production.  More recently, expanding federal crop insurance and disaster relief programmes such as the 2012 Farm Bill mean that farmers in drought-prone areas are able to risk growing highly profitable but rainfall-dependent crops such as soybeans. 


“Images of recently cleared grassland areas from North Dakota where rates of grassland conversion to corn and soy are the highest in the country. Stripping grassland landscapes bare removes natural buffers, increases soil erosion, and exacerbates the risk of fertiliser pollution from crops planted in these areas.” – Mighty Earth Mystery Meat 2 Report 2017.

A 2013 Wright and Wimberly study called recent loss of natural grasslands “one of the most important land cover/land use change events in recent U.S. history,” leading U.S. grasslands to be classified as one of the most threatened biomes in the world.  A recent University of Wisconsin study estimated that the recent loss of natural grassland “could have emitted as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 38 coal fired power plants operating for a year.“  

South America 

From 2001-2010, an average of approximately four million hectares of forests were destroyed each year, mostly for soy and beef production.  This has impacted a range of precious ecosystems including the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest, the Gran Chaco, and the Chinquitano in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia from diverse native ecosystems into soy monocultures. 

WWF 2014

The Atlantic Forest 

The Atlantic Forest was once one of the world’s great forests, covering 100–150 million ha (1-1.5 million Km2) along the coast of Brazil and into eastern Paraguay and northeast Argentina.  Centuries of forest clearance have reduced it to a fraction of its original area.  Nonetheless, it remains immensely rich in both biodiversity – with over 8,000 endemic species – and diverse human cultures.  60% of Brazilian endangered species depend on the Atlantic Forest to survive.  Approximately 40% of its vascular plants and up to 60% of its vertebrates are endemic species, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.  New species are continually being found in the Atlantic Forest.  Between 1990 and 2006 over a thousand new flowering plants were discovered. 

Two of the world’s great cities, São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, lie within the region, and the remaining forest helps to protect watersheds and provide other important environmental services.  The Atlantic Forest’s spectacular wildlife includes jaguars, tree anteaters, tapirs, the golden lion tamarin, as well as more bird species than are found in the whole of Europe.  It’s also home to 263 species of amphibians found nowhere else on Earth.  Over one-half the forest’s tree species are unique to the region, and as many as 450 types have been found in a single hectare.  Previously deforested areas are shown in yellow below. 


The Atlantic Forest in Brazil is originally thought to have covered around 130 million ha.  This original area has been greatly reduced, with estimates for remaining forest ranging from 7% to 16%.  Today, most of this is in isolated fragments of fewer than 50 ha, although there has been some regrowth of young secondary forest and efforts at restoration.  In 1993, the Atlantic Forest in Brazil was granted legal protection, and further clearing was banned 10 years later.  Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest had, by 2010, shrunk to less than 13% of its original 8.7 million ha and losses continued.  In Paraguay, the government legislated a 2004 moratorium on forest conversion in the east of the country, which has reduced deforestation rates in the Atlantic Forest by 90 %.  The moratorium has been extended several times, most recently to 2018.  But according to a 2018 report agricultural interests have now cleared an estimated 98% of Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest.  Argentina contains the largest remaining intact areas of Atlantic Forest, with more than 1 million ha in both public and private lands; nonetheless, almost half a million ha were lost between 1973 and 2006.   

There have been multiple drivers of forest loss in the Atlantic Forest, including agriculture, ranching, forestry, conversion to tree plantations and road building, with soy becoming increasingly significant as earlier crops diminished.  Agricultural expansion, for crops including soybeans as well as cattle ranching and tree plantations, is the major underlying cause of the fragmentation of the forest.  Despite strengthened protection in Brazil and Paraguay, soy production remains a threat to the remaining Atlantic Forest, one of the most vulnerable and diverse forests on Earth.  

The Amazon Rainforest 

One-third of the world’s tropical forest is found in the Amazon, which stretches across parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.  

© Fundacion Vida Silvestre

Its intricate web of life is home to one in every 10 species on Earth, from more than 100,000 types of insects and nearly 40,000 plant species.  The Amazon River flows for more than 6,600 km, and with its hundreds of tributaries and streams contains the largest number of freshwater fish species in the world.  As Earth’s largest river basin, the Amazon is the source of around one-sixth of all the water that flows into the sea from the world’s rivers.  Spanning 6.7 million km2 (twice the size of India) the Amazon Biome is virtually unrivalled in scale and complexity. 

Aerial view of the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Gustavo Frazao

The Amazon also plays a huge role in the Earth’s climate – not just as a massive store of carbon, but in the way it affects rainfall patterns.  Climate models suggest Amazon deforestation could lead to droughts and crop failures across the Americas, and possibly in other agricultural regions as far away as Europe.   

But cattle ranching (which is expanding by slash-and-burn agriculture) is paving the way for soy developers, who take over the land and push cattle ranching (and deforestation) towards new pioneer areas.  The Amazon has lost 20-25% of its forest cover, and soy production in the Brazilian Amazon tripled from 1990 to 2006.  More than 30 million people live in the region, and many depend on the forest and its rivers for their livelihoods.  Soy production is one of a number of drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, along with pasture expansion for cattle rearing, fires, legal and illegal logging, opening up paved roads, and climate change.  

Despite the Morotorium on clearing rainforest for soybean cultivation it still remains one of the major underlying causes of deforestation in the Legal Amazon 

Between 2010 and 2015, the Bolivian Amazon experienced an average of 289,000 hectares per year of deforestation, according to a 2015 Food and Agriculture Organization report.  A separate Bolivian study published in the international Plos One scientific journal found that Bolivia lost 430,000 hectares of forest per year over the previous decade.  More than three quarters of this deforestation takes place in the Santa Cruz region.  According to analysis by Forest Trends, up to nine-tenths of this deforestation is illegal.  Although Bolivia is one of the least economically developed countries in South America, its greenhouse gas emissions levels per capita equal or exceed those of many European countries.  More than 80% of those emissions come from deforestation.  

Fires blaze on Propieded Valle Verde in Bolivia.Credit: Jim Wickens/Ecostorm

Mighty Earth and the Rainforest Foundation Norway report that “Upon reaching the outskirts of Santa Cruz, the agricultural capital of Bolivia, we quickly started to see the same type of extensive deforestation that we witnessed in Brazil.  Massive, out-of-control fires raged through the landscape.  Farm workers explained how blazes set by soy growers have dried out the landscape and made it vulnerable to fire.” 

The direct driver of deforestion is the meat industry.  Other indirect causes of forest loss include land tenure issues, crime, poverty and population growth.  As well as direct conversion of Amazon rainforest to soy, much soy expansion in Brazil now occurs on land previously deforested for cattle grazing.  This can contribute indirectly to deforestation by pushing cattle production into the forest.  Off-site impacts of soy, such as pollution of watercourses from agrochemicals and soil erosion, have also had an impact on natural ecosystems. 

If deforestation rates seen over the last few decades continue, a further one-quarter of the remaining Amazon forest could be lost within the next 30 years, and 37% within 50 years.  More pessimistic estimates suggest that 55% could be lost in the next 20 years as increased demand for agricultural commodities exacerbates a vicious circle of climate feedbacks, such as increased drought and forest fires.  There were some positive signs that further catastrophic forest loss might be avoided.  In Brazil, a moratorium on soy grown on land cleared from Amazon forest has resulted in a sharp downturn in direct impacts.  The moratorium’s effectiveness has been enhanced by a concerted effort on the part of the Brazilian government to enforce deforestation laws in the Amazon.  

The positive impact of the Soy Moratorium—an agreement not to buy, trade or finance soybeans produced on deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon—is easy to see.  New legal controls have also contributed to the deforestation rate declining by 70 per cent to 0.7 million ha/year in 2009.  In 2012, overall forest clearing reached its lowest level since annual record-keeping began in the late 1980s.  But the reduction in forest loss remains fragile, changes in Brazil’s Forest Code, in mid-2012, have resulted in deforestation rates rising again.  According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research’s near-real-time tracking system, at least 61,500 ha of rainforest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon between November 2012 and February 2013.  This deforestation rate continues to accelerate: between August 2012 and July 2013 more than 200,000 ha of forest were cleared, 92 % more than the previous year.  And with a change in the ruling party deforestation has continued to increase from 2013 to today. 

The Cerrado 

Brazil’s Cerrado was a 200 million hectare, wildlife-rich forested savanna.  It is home to five percent of the world’s biodiversity, including threatened species like the jaguar, giant anteater, fox, maned wolf, and marsh deer.  The region also locks up a deceptively large store of carbon, as its small trees have deep root systems: around 70 per cent of the biomass of this “upside-down forest” is underground, and recent studies suggest it may hold some 265 tonnes of carbon per hectare (Castro and Kauffman, 1998).  Annual CO2 emissions from converting the Cerrado are around 250 million tonnes – equivalent to one-half of the UK’s emissions.  The Cerrado is also a vital source of water for millions of people living in the region.  Half of Brazil’s watersheds have their sources there, including the Pantanal, which is the largest wetland in the world.  The Cerrado even powers Brazil’s economy: 90 percent of Brazilians rely on hydroelectric power generated from watersheds originating in the Cerrado. 

Chapada dos Veadeiros, Brazilian Cerrado. Photo: Willians Fausto.

The Cerrado is one of the richest savannah formations on Earth.  Located between the Amazon, Atlantic Forest and Pantanal, the Cerrado is the largest savannah region in South America, covering more than 20 per cent of Brazil.  The Cerrado is also one of the most threatened and over-exploited regions in the world.  These wooded grasslands once covered an area half the size of Europe: now, its native habitats and rich biodiversity are being destroyed much faster than the neighbouring rainforest.  The Cerrado has biodiversity that rivals equivalent areas of Amazonian forests, but only 1.5% of such lands are in federal reserves and the soy moratorium does not apply to the Cerrado.  Unfortunately, they can be easily converted into vast expanses of soybean fields.  This damages the land hugely.  Agrochemicals are needed for soybeans to be financially viable.  The soils often become so poor that within two years, virtually all nutrients have to come from lime and fertilizers.  The soil ends up stripped of virtually all fertility and only serves to hold up the plants.   

The Cerrado shelters 5 per cent of all the living species on Earth and one in every ten Brazilian species.  There are over 10,000 species of plants, 44% of its plant species exist nowhere else on Earth.  The Cerrado is home to 60 vulnerable animal species, 20 endangered and 12 critically endangered, including the maned wolf and the giant anteater.  Around 300 of its native plant species are used as food, medicine, handicrafts or for trade.  

© Fernando Allen / WWF Paraguay

The Cerrado was once thought to be unsuitable for agriculture.  But new technologies and techniques have allowed farming to spread rapidly over the last 40 years.  Initially this was largely driven by cattle ranching, with over 50 million ha being converted (Klink and Machado, 2005).  But since 2000 soy, along with other crops such as maize, cotton and sugarcane, has expanded into extensive areas.  

The Cerrado (WWF)

Between 2002 and 2008, average deforestation of the Cerrado exceeded 14,000 km2 per year.  Unsustainable agricultural activities, particularly soy production and cattle ranching, as well as burning of vegetation for charcoal, continue to pose a major threat to the Cerrado’s biodiversity.  As of 2018 around half the native savannah and forest of the Cerrado has been converted to agriculture since the late 1950s.  

Clearance on Fazenda São José, São Desidério, Brazil. Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

Other estimates are as low as 35 per cent (Klink and Machado, 2005; Durigan et al., 2007) and 21.3 per cent (Conservation International, 2012).  Remaining areas are severely fragmented (Ribeiro et al., 2011), and there are few contiguous areas over 1,000 ha (Durigan and Ratter, 2006).  Just over 11 million ha are under protection, though less than 3 million ha – 1.4 per cent of the total area – is classified under the strictest levels of protection, IUCN categories I-IV (Conservation International, 2012; Klink and Machado, 2005). 

Extensive clearance and fires on Fazenda São José in São Desidério, Brazil. Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

As these ecosystems are lost, indigenous people are displaced, and the wildlife and vital ecological services the ecosystems provide, like clean water, carbon sequestration and healthy soils, are lost.  Species that are threatened include the jaguar, maned wolf and giant anteater, but also many other plants and animals that are unique to the Cerrado.  Not only fragile ecosystems and species are feeling the strain.  Habitat destruction also threatens the way of life of many indigenous people and other communities who rely on forests, natural grasslands and savannahs for their livelihoods.  According to Mighty Earth and RAN more than half of the Cerrado’s natural vegetation has already been cleared, compared to less than 25 percent of the Amazon.   A recent study by Brazilian universities found that this deforestation is threatening the Cerrado’s water supplies, which in turn can dry out the neighboring Amazon, making it more susceptible to large fires.  Nonetheless, big soy companies like Cargill and Bunge that supply Burger King and many of the other top meat retailers have not shown signs of letting up.

The Gran Chaco 

The Gran Chaco is a 110-million hectare region spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay.  The dry woodlands of the Chaco are one of the largest remaining continuous tracts of native vegetation in South America, second in size only to the great Amazon rainforest.   

The forests of the Gran Chaco are home to a vibrant community of indigenous peoples, such as the Ayoreo, Chamacoco, Enxet, Guarayo, Maka’a, Manjuy, Mocoví, Nandeva, Nivakle, Toba Qom, and Wichi who are completely dependent on the forest.  One of the of the most vulnerable groups are the Ayoreo indigenous people, some of which remain uncontacted.  They are dependent upon the Chaco forest to survive and are particularly vulnerable, given that when contact happens, it is almost always violent.  The Gran Chaco is highly biodiverse and home to many endemic species.  It was once the impenetrable stronghold of almost magical creatures like the screaming hairy armadillo (a real animal), the famous jaguar, and the giant anteater.  The Gran Chaco’s habitats range from dry thorn forests and cactus stands to palm savannahs that flood in the wet season.  

The Gran Chaco has high levels of biodiversity, containing around 3,400 plant species, 500 birds, 150 mammals and 220 reptiles and amphibians.  Its central location in South America makes it an important refuge for many migrating birds.  The Chaco has been gradually converted over long periods, but the rate of conversion of natural vegetation has accelerated in recent years.  Around 12 to 15% of the natural Chaco landscape has been converted into agricultural uses.


 Over the last two decades, the forests of the Chaco have experienced some of the world’s highest rates of conversion to agriculture, primarily for soybean farming and cattle ranching.  

Conversion of native vegetation to monoculture soy, Argentina. Photo: Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

In fact, the Chaco forests are being lost at rates matching or exceeding those of rainforests — even the Amazon.  More than eight million hectares of the Chaco have been cleared over just a dozen years.  The total emissions associated with the conversion of Chaco forest and grasslands to croplands and pasture is estimated to be 3,024 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 1985 and 2013, more than four times Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion in 2015. 

Burn and forest boundary of area deforested for soy, Argentina. Photo: Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

In Argentina, some 1.2-1.4 million ha (85% of the national deforestation total) was cleared in 30 years, a deforestation rate of 2.2% per year.  As controls have tightened on felling Atlantic Forest remnants, particularly in Paraguay, pressure has mounted on the neighbouring Gran Chaco.  From 2010 to 2012, for example, a total of 823,868 ha was cleared in the three main countries, three-quarters in Paraguay.   

Paraguay’s Gran Chaco used to be described as “The Impenetrable,” but now bulldozers clearing land to grow animal feed for European markets are not an unusual sight. Photo: Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

In Bolivia, the heart of Gran Chaco is protected by the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and indigenous area.  But land to the north and west, where the soil is extremely fertile, is being cleared for agriculture.  Several attempts to implement a temporary moratorium in the Chaco have failed, due to strong opposition from the agricultural sector. 

The Chiquitano 

Tropical dry forests are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet – and the Chiquitano forest is the largest patch of healthy dry forest ecosystem still remaining.  Located at a crossroads where the humid Amazon meets the arid Chaco, the trees of the Chiquitano shed their leaves in the dry season, and have evolved to withstand both fires and floods.  Most intact Chiquitano forest is found in Bolivia, though small patches remain in Brazil and Paraguay.  This ancient and unique ecosystem shelters a wide range of species including pumas, maned wolf and the giant armadillo.  Bolivia’s little-known dry forests contain exceptional biodiversity, and are targeted for soy expansion. 

The Chiquitano forest once covered around 12.5 million ha.  Around 15 per cent had been converted before 2001.  The mean annual rate of forest loss in Santa Cruz was estimated at about 100,000 ha between 1990 and 2000, which grew to 220,000 ha between 2000 and 2005 (Killeen et al., 2007a). 

Maned Wolf © Martin Harvey / WWF

The main threat to the Chiquitano forest comes from cattle ranching and soy cultivation although mining is also an important agent of change.  The large-scale cultivation of soy took off in the early 1990s, an explicit objective of a development project financed by the World Bank.  Soy cultivation in Bolivia has continued to increase rapidly, by nearly 6% every year.  Land and labour are cheap compared to other South American countries and these factors have contributed significantly to the increasing expansion of soy production.  In recent years, these costs have increased substantially, which may limit future expansion of soy.  Over half the soy farms in Santa Cruz are owned by non-Bolivians, with 25% owned by Brazilians. 

© Ilosuna (Wikipedia)

The rise of soy has been accompanied by accelerating deforestation rates.  One author has attributed the loss of 650,000 ha of the Bolivian Chiquitano since the 1950s specifically to soy production, noting that this deforestation has shown little respect for previous land use, protected areas or indigenous territories. 





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