Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Part 3 – The Human Impact of Soy 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. 


Social impacts 

As a producer from the Chaco, born and raised in the area, I don’t think that soy is food.  To me, it’s a disease.  Healthy foods are those from my father’s time, sweet potatoes, yucca, pumpkins… Soy is for the big money pools, not for us.  

They came to make us sick with soy here, in the Chaco.  And I believe all over Argentina too. … They come, sow, poison, harvest and go away. … For me, soy is no good, not even as a food for the animals. It makes the animals sick … the hens do not lay eggs, the meat has an awful taste.  It’s not like the corn that we sow in the Chaco… The planes [spraying herbicides] passed at 6:00 a.m.  They poisoned the water, the tank, the well and we drank it and the animals drank it.  We ended up sick, my animals and I.  They made us sick.  – Catalina Cendra, farmer from the Chaco, Arg. 

Clearing native vegetation for conversion to soy monoculture. La Rejas, Argentina. Photo: Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

Large scale land use change creates social change, along with many claims and counterclaims about the costs and benefits of development.  Despite a lot of talk and publicity, there have been relatively few detailed social research projects into the impacts of soy expansion.  A recent working paper found that soy expansion in the Amazon region has reduced several poverty indicators and raised median rural incomes, but at the same time has increased levels of inequality and continued a process of consolidation of land holdings into the hands of fewer people.  Despite the large growth in Argentina’s soy exports, one of the few studies available found no systematic relationship between soy expansion and improved living standards of the local populations.  A growing number of family farmers rent or sell their farmland to soy producers, jeopardizing the local food supply.  In Argentina, the area where soy is grown increased by 141% between 1995 and 2004, while the area covered by corn, rice, oats and beans decreased by 16%, 19%, 27% and 52% respectively. 

Human Rights 

The growth of the soy industry has brought mixed blessings for farmers and local communities in South America and the rest of the world.  Opening up new agricultural land to grow soybeans has often led to violent, sometimes fatal, conflicts with local communities and indigenous people.  In the Argentinean Chaco, there were at least 153 land conflicts from 2007 to 2010, affecting 98,000 people across around 1,720,000 hectares.  

In Brazil, soybean cultivation displaces 11 agricultural workers for each one who finds employment in the sector.  In the 1970s, soybean production displaced 2.5 million people in Paraná state and 0.3 million in Rio Grande do Sul.  Many of these people moved to the Amazon where they cleared pristine forests (Fearnside 2000).  When plantations encroach on nature reserves, or reserves for indigenous people, locals often find it hard to stand up for their rights – regardless of whether they have formal land ownership papers.  Falsification of property contracts, sometimes with the complicity of local authorities, is common practice to “steal” land for agricultural purposes.  Expansion of agricultural and grazing land threatens 650,000 Brazilian Indians in over 200 tribes, according to Survival International. 

Across Brazil, agribusiness has had a long history of land grabbing, destruction and violence.  A recent report by the international NGO Global Witness found that more indigenous forest defenders had been killed in Brazil than in any other country.  Most of the murders took place in the regions with the most land-grabbing for cattle ranches and soy plantations.  Hundreds of indigenous defenders have been murdered by hit men hired by unscrupulous agricultural interests.  Stopping this cycle of violence will require action from the customers of these commercial agricultural producers.  

NGOs have documented cases of land eviction, misuse of pesticides and, in Paraguay, violent suppression of land protests related to soy.  Greenpeace has documented use of slaves in soy farms in the Amazon region, with workers being duped into coming to ranches where their papers are taken away and they are forced to work.  The Brazilian government keeps a ‘dirty list’ of farms successfully prosecuted: in 2004, for example, it intervened in 236 cases of slavery in soy farms involving over 6,000 labourers including 127 children 

The NGO GRAIN has documented cases of land grabbing associated with soy in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.  Eviction of indigenous communities has also been reported from northwest Argentina and eastern Paraguay, where indigenous groups who have depended on the forest for centuries have been displaced and now live in poverty in the cities of Ciudad del Este and Asunción (Hobbs, 2012).  A study in Argentina’s Chaco region documented 224 land conflicts, including a number related to soy, affecting 127,886 people on more than 2.7 million ha: one quarter of the families were evicted. 

Living Among the Soy Fields 

Local and indigenous populations often suffer the consequences of deforestation.  Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in all of Latin America.  About 40 percent of its population identify as indigenous, according to the 2012 census.  Much of the remainder of the population has mixed indigenous and European heritage.  Many indigenous communities live in forests and rely on them for food, water, shelter and their cultural survival.  Soy producers, ranchers, and illegal logging interests have often used violence to displace lowland groups like the Guaraní people from their ancestral land.  

Ayoreo indigenous Children in the village of Puesto Paz. Credit: Jim Wickens/ Ecostorm 

We (ME&RFN) visited the Ayoreo indigenous community in the village of Puesto Paz, a few hours east of Santa Cruz. Until recently, the Ayoreo were traditional hunter gatherers, traveling through the forests that stretched in every direction.  Today, the forests have been cut down, and the Ayoreo community is isolated and surrounded by soy fields, with their traditional hunting lands now owned by foreign companies, and their crops exported overseas.  When our team spoke with the village head, he described the fear his community experiences when planes fly overhead and spray pesticides for soy just a few hundred meters from the village.  He spoke of an incident when several children died from drinking water from a discarded pesticide container brought back from a nearby soy field.  Too often, this is where the global meat supply chain ends: with a community driven off their land, their forest cut down, living a precarious existence isolated from their past and without a clear future.  

Human Rights violations and violence against Indigenous communities 

The Y’apó indigenous community lives close to the Brazilian border in the city of Corpus Christi, Paraguay.  According to testimony and photos from an investigation by the Paraguayan newspaper E’a, the community in 2014 was invaded by 50 armed security guards hired from a neighboring farm owned by the group “La Americana.”  This farm deforested 1,000 hectares of the indigenous land — and ever since, the company has been accusing the Y’apó of trespassing on their own land.  

According to the newspaper’s investigation, which was corroborated by community testimony collected by our field team, the armed security guards smashed down doors and invaded houses, assaulted the adults and children, and kicked pregnant women — some of whom lost their babies.  Thirty-two members of the community were hurt.  Three guards and seven indigenous people were hit by gunshots.  One guard was killed.  Victims reported that the attack was intended to force the residents to leave the area.  

Abelino Garcia in front of pond poisoned by agrotoxins, Paraguay. Photo: Jim Wickens, Ecostorm

Our investigators interviewed the community’s leader, Abelino Garcia.  He told us that the farm keeps accusing them of trespassing and that his people live in constant fear that the private security officers will come back to try to force them to leave — or worse.  He also said their rivers are so polluted by pesticides that fish — an important food source — are dying off.  And with the community now surrounded by soy fields, opportunities for traditional hunting have nearly disappeared.  The arrival of soy has also sown conflict in the community between those who are trying to protect their traditional lands and those who have sold them to soy companies.  The arrival of large-scale soy has put the local culture at risk.  Ramón Lopez, leader of the indigenous communities throughout the region, told us that many other communities were displaced after deforestation destroyed their traditional way of living.  Some were even left without wood to build houses.  Most distressingly, he said there is not much hope for the indigenous communities to survive for much longer.

Land Concentration 

Most soybean production in South America operates on an industrial scale, which tends to disadvantage smallholders. The expansion of medium and large scale producers can cause land concentration which may, in turn, displace local people and take away their livelihood.  The majority of the land used for soy in the Cerrado and Amazon in Brazil is controlled by a few major owners, with many farms averaging 1,000 ha and some reaching 50,000 ha (or about 70,000 football fields).  

In Chaco province, Argentina, where soy has replaced typical smallholder crops such as cotton, the number of farmers of fewer than 100 ha fell by 80% while the number of farms over 1,000 ha increased by 230% between 1998 and 2002.  By contrast, most soy in China and India is grown by smallholders; while productivity is lower, the economic benefits are spread much more widely. 

“The film, Killing Fields: the battle to feed factory farms – produced by a coalition of pressure groups including Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch and with European coordination by Via Campesina – documents the experiences of some of those caught up in Paraguay’s growing conflict over soy farming and reveals, for the first time, how intensive animal farming across the EU, is fuelling the problem.  The film highlights the ‘unsustainable’ nature of modern food production, and raises awareness of the largely hidden cost of the factory farming systems supplying much of Europe’s cheap meat and dairy produce. 

Since the beginning of the soy boom in Paraguay in 1990, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 small-scale farmers have been forced to migrate to cities – with about 9,000 rural families evicted because of soy production annually.  Upon arrival in urban areas, many families are forced into slums and struggle to adapt.  With few employment opportunities and little state assistance, many face a life of poverty.”  (Andrew Walsley, Ecostorm, 2009).


The impact on agricultural labour depends on what soy production is replacing.  Employment opportunities are likely to be higher in soy farming than in cattle ranching, but lower where soybean displaces traditional cultivation activities.  In the Americas income tends to benefit a small group of larger enterprises rather than a large number of smaller farms.  It has been estimated that conversion to soy has eliminated four out of five farm jobs in parts of Argentina.  In India and China, by contrast, soy provides an important source of income and employment for several million smallholders.

A soy worker in the field: conversion to soy has eliminated four out of five farm jobs in parts of Argentina

Soy and Climate Change 

Agriculture directly accounts for approximately 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly in the form of methane and nitrous oxide from fertilized soils, enteric fermentation, biomass burning, rice production, and manure and fertilizer production.  However, since vast swathes of forest are cleared for agricultural land, agriculture is responsible for the majority of forestry’s share of global emissions, around 17.4%.  Therefore, agriculture accounts for approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissionsVarious aspects of soy production can cause greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, deforestation, and emissions from soil management and tillage practices.  (Our VSM Animal Agriculture and Climate Change shows how animal agriculture is responsible for 48% of GHG emissions). 

When forests and other valuable ecosystems are cleared to make room for soybean plantations, it’s not only forests and vegetation that are lost, but also their function as carbon storage.  The tropical forests of the Americas, such as the Amazon, are estimated to store over half of the world’s carbon.  The Amazon’s forests contain 90-140 billion tonnes of carbon—that’s 7-9 years of current global, annual, human-induced carbon emissions.  Soy expansion threatens not only forests, but other valuable ecosystems that also store carbon. 

One example is the Cerrado, which has already lost half its native vegetation to soybean plantations.  The Cerrado is globally important because of the large stock of carbon it stores in its vegetation and soil.  Although the Cerrado looks like it is much sparser than the well-known carbon store of the Amazon, it actually has about 70% of its biomass underground and has been described as ‘a forest standing on its head’.  Recent studies suggest that the carbon stock in its trees, bushes, litter, roots and soil may be nearly double the figure given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2000), at some 265 tonnes of carbon per hectare.  As the global demand for soy continues to grow, the environmental impact of the crop is only likely to increase. 

The productivity of crop and livestock systems is extremely vulnerable to climate change.  US crop yields could decrease by 30-46% over the next century under slow global warming scenarios, and by 63-82% under the most rapid global warming scenarios.  Crop yields increase gradually between roughly 10-30 °C, but when temperature levels go over 30°C, soybean yields fall steeply.  In a warming world, this spells problems for the agricultural industry globally.

A soy farm surrounded by native Chiquitano Forest 

The soy industry is feeling the brunt of climate change – but it is also contributing to the problem.  The expansion of soybean plantations is often at the expense of valuable forests or other native vegetation, meaning that the carbon storage services they provide are lost forever.  This disrupts the balance of the climate and contributes to global climate change.  And as climatic patterns become more extreme and less predictable, agriculture in turn suffers. Soybean will be one of the crops that suffers most from climate change, if current production practices stay the same.  By 2070, the area suitable for soy plantations could drop by 60% compared to the current production area, because of water deficiency and more intense summers.  The southern and northern Brazilian Cerrado (a biodiversity hotspot larger than Mexico covered by soybean agriculture) faces the most damage, with costs up to Real $7.6 billion (almost US$4 billion) until 2070, in the worst case scenario.  In addition, warmer temperatures are expected to lead to more extreme rainfall events, with erosion and soil degradation more likely to occur. Global warming would also affect soil fertility.  


The Brazilian National Development Bank has warned that “without well defined technical criteria” the soil in many areas of the Amazon could be rendered unusable by soybean cultivation.  Soybean production also causes soil compaction, damaging the land.  In Bolivia, where soybean cultivation has been increasing since the 1970s, degradation is already severe.  Initially, soybeans can be cultivated without fertilizer or lime applications.  But soil soon needs these to be able to nourish its crop – and they can damage the environment even further.  Eventually, even that’s not enough, and land has to be retired. In the case of Bolivia, by the late 1990s more than 100,000 hectares of former soybean lands were abandoned to cattle pasture because the soil was exhausted.  The settlements that had farmed soybeans had moved further to the north to clear more forests to, once again, plant soybeans. 

Life cycle analysis of soy production in the Cerrado, Brazil, found annual soil erosion losses of 8 tonnes per hectare which leads to loss of organic matter, compaction and acidification and loss of water quality.  Encouragingly the use of no-till methods is increasing with a consequent decrease in erosion.  However no-till isn’t used everywhere and erosion can be as high as 19-30 tonnes per hectare per year with the boom in soy markets encouraging farmers to plant on more erodible soils. 


The impact of soy production on the water cycle varies greatly between countries and regions.  Soybean used 4% of global irrigation water in 1997- 2000 but this use is not evenly spread; for example soy is mainly a rain fed crop in South America but is much more heavily irrigated elsewhere.  The soil in soy bean fields is usually more compacted than the soil in tropical forests so when it rains the water tends to run off rather than sinking down into deeper soils and groundwater. The concern is that wide conversion to intensive soy cultivation will therefore reduce water availability in the long term.  Water quality and quantity is also very much impacted by soil erosion and agrochemical residues. 


Modern farming technology uses large quantities of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  The use of agrochemicals is one of the main environmental threats linked to soy production as it causes soil contamination and has huge impacts on water quality and biodiversity.  Various studies have shown that glyphosate is linked to reproductive disorders, genetic damage, liver tumours, disrupted embryo development and development delays in mammals (e.g., Cox 1998).  

In the US, total herbicide use on soybeans increased from 56.4 million pounds in 1995 to 75.2 million pounds in 2000, according to chemical usage summaries from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA 1991).  The use of glyphosate (Roundup) increased from 6.3 million pounds to 41.8 million pounds in the same period.  In 1995, glyphosate was used on a fifth of the soybean crop.  But by 2000, just 4 years after the 1996 release of Roundup-ready soybeans, it was used on 62% of the crop (Tengnas and Nilsson 2002).  Furthermore, applications increased from one per crop to 1.3 applications.  

Monarch Butterflies going extinct in the US as herbicides destroy its feed. Mighty Earth

The World Bank reports that the use of agro-chemicals in Argentina has increased by 1000% over the last 20 years, due to the shift to genetically modified soy that is resistant to glyphosate, allowing even larger quantities to be sprayed.  The World Health Organization has declared glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, although Monsanto has defended the safety of its product.  After rounds of debate, the EU decided to renew the license for glysophate for another five year.  However, following its own independent studies, the Government of France has recently declared its intention to ban glyphosate as soon as alternatives are found, and at the latest within three years.  On average, 19 percent of deaths in Argentina are caused by cancer; however, in the soy growing areas, more than 30 percent of deaths are caused by cancer, leading to concerns about how widespread pesticide and chemical use in the Chaco and elsewhere are affecting people’s health.

There is concern but not yet evidence that agrochemicals will contaminate lakes and lagoons in the Brazilian Amazon River floodplains.  These agrochemicals include the herbicides trifluralin (Treflan), lactofen (Cobra), fomesafen (Reflex), bentazon (Basagran), imazethapyr (Pursuit), sethoxydim (Poast) and clethodim (Select).  During the dry season, the waterways dry up and any contamination in the separate water bodies would become more concentrated (Fearnside 2000 and Leibold 2001a).  In the Brazilian Amazon, high humidity and heavy rains have already caused fungus and blights to spread.  This, in turn, has increased use of fungicides.  Similarly, as production continues in the same area over a number of years, pest populations will increase, meaning increased use of chemical controls.  Because Brazil has no frost, pests will adjust more rapidly to whatever chemicals are used to prevent them than they do even in the United States, where pests have rapidly developed resistance to the chemicals used to control them.  

The Food and Agriculture Organization and others estimate that a quarter of all pesticides used in Brazil are used in soybean cultivation, and that in 2002 Brazilians used 50,000 metric tonnes of pesticides on soybeans (World Bank 2002).  Because of the rapid expansion of area planted with soybeans, pesticide use is increasing at a rate of 21.7% per year.  Soybean production is expanding into areas where there aren’t enough people to work on plantations, so pesticides are used to reduce labour needs and costs.  

Agrochemicals use can also affect human health: a study in Mato Grosso, for example, tested 62 samples of breast milk and found traces of one or more toxic agrochemicals in all of them.  The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics estimates that 35% of all pesticides used in Brazil are for soy farming.  The use of chemicals in soy fields is a major source of social conflict.  Aerial and terrestrial spraying with glyphosate, 2-4 D, endosulfan and other pesticides very often adversely affects villages and water sources.  There is increasing evidence of birth defects and cases of cancer in areas affected by the expansion of soy in Argentina and Paraguay.  


The scale of soy monoculture is unprecedented.  As with any system of production that cultivates single crops over vast areas, soy monocultures minimize ecological services and become more dependent on chemicals to control pests such as insects and fungi.  The scale of the monoculture itself creates ecological risks, including new or growing pest and disease problems such as soybean rust, which has risen dramatically in Brazil. 

Economic Imbalance 

Recently-expanded soy plantations also affect rural employment and the local economy.  Large-scale soy growers usually come from other regions, with their own suppliers and services contractors.  They also process their soy far away from where it’s produced—creating no local added value.  In the case of Chaco in Argentina, the expansion of soybean plantations has replaced the cotton economy, which is much more labour intensive, adapted to smallholders, and relies on a strong local value chain.  

“On the other hand, in some places soy farmers, labourers and non-soy farmers are positive about the social impacts of soy.  In Sorriso, Brazil (in the Cerrado) there has been a major increase in soy production, and incomes are 4.6 times higher than those in Guarantã do Norte (the transitional zone between the Cerrado and the Amazon biome), which is still dominated by cattle rearing.”  (Simply indicating that soy production and cattle rearing are both useless).

Impacts of associated development 

As well as destroying habitats, soybean production in pristine areas also requires the construction of massive transportation and other infrastructure projects.  These developments unleash many indirect consequences, including opening up large, previously isolated environments to population migration and other land uses.  In Brazil, for example, plans are underway to build 8 industrial waterways, 3 railways, and an extensive network of highways.  This infrastructure is not just used for soybeans.  Estimates suggest that this infrastructure may cause 6 times more collateral damage than that from soybean production alone, particularly in areas like the Amazon where isolation had previously limited development (Fearnside 2000). 


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