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The worldwide increase in demand for soy led to the creation of huge soy deserts in North and South America. These monocultures drive out the smallholders and the original flora, boost the use of agro-poisons and generate hardly any jobs.

The soy bean is being used as feed mainly in the chicken and pig fodder due to its high protein content. The Northern countries however cannot cover their own animal feed need due to the lack of arable land. For instance, in case Switzerland would like to produce its totality of animal feed on its own the existing area of arable land would have to be doubled.

Meat consumption is determining demand for soy

As a consequence of the increasing meat consumption throughout the world, soy demand increased at a virtually explosive rate. During the last forty years it has increased from 78 million to 250 million tons in one year.  This trend is thought to continue in future: If we do not change anything about our consumer behavior the worldwide meat consumption is very likely to double again until 2050.

Soy cultivation is highly industrialized in Brazil. Large landowners are instituting monocultures on gigantic surfaces. Only 1% of the Brazilian population is in possession of 48% of the arable lands. There is a drastic reduction of biodiversity in these so-called “soy deserts”. The use of heavy agricultural machinery leads to soil compaction and the lacking diversification causes erosion. The excessive use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides harms rivers, soils and ground water. In Brazil, huge surfaces of original flora are being sacrificed to the fast-growing agricultural industry: 70’000km2 tropical rainforest area has been turned into soy cultivation area since 2003.

The small ones get the short end of the stick

Industrial soy cultivation also brings about social consequences: smallholders cannot afford the high capital investment for machinery, fertilizer and chemical sprays. They sell their land to large landowners and migrate into cities. In Brazil, today 350’000 smallholding families are cultivating soy while disposing of 13% of the total area under cultivation. The remaining 87% of soy cultivation area in Brazil are cultivated by large landowners providing income for only 66’000 persons.

The strong soy demand is furthermore repeatedly causing violation of property and human rights: In places where the indigenous groups dispose of the traditional land-use rights but not the corresponding tenure, the original settlers are being driven out depriving them not only of their property but also of their livelihood.

The empty promise of genetic engeneering

By law, the cultivation and sale of genetically modified soy was permitted since 2005 in Brazil. Today between 50% and 70% of the soy cultivated in Brazil are genetically modified. Due to their resistance against the herbicide glyphosate, workloads removing weeds should be reduced and the soy cultivation profitability increased.  However, no one can assess the impact of the use of this new technique – neither the consequences of direct consumption of genetically modified food nor the indirect impacts on the ecosystem.

In the meantime, the profitability argument has turned out to be an empty promise. While the herbicides suitable for genetically modified soy were indeed reasonably available in the beginning, prices however have by now increased substantially. Furthermore, other plants have developed resistances against glyphosate in the mean time forcing the farmers to use larger quantities of the poison. It is due to these mechanisms that the farmers become more and more dependent on agricultural multinationals and their pricing policy.

Organic farmers and smallholders under pressure

Genetically modified cultures present a constant threat to organic producers. Genetically modified organisms can contaminate the organic soy through transmission of pollen or through residuals in farm equipment making it impossible for this soy to be recognized as an organic product. As a matter of fact, small family-run farms as the ones in Capanema are particularly heavily exposed to this risk because they cannot afford to own their own machinery and thus rely on borrowed apparatus.

The supply of seeds appeared to pose a further difficulty in the meantime. There are hardly any genetically unmodified seeds available in Southern Brazil. Whereas a company such as gebana Brazil has the possibility to get the seeds for their farmers in other regions or to produce them by itself, many other smallholders see themselves left with the genetically modified soy. The freedom to choose between conventional or organic agriculture has gotten lost through the assertiveness of genetically modified plants.

Further information on soy cultivation (in German)


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