The EU must act on new evidence of soy’s destructive role in the tropics
Spurred on by a wave of food scandals - as well as rising consumer anxieties over the environment and animal welfare - major retailers across Europe are sourcing more of their meat from local, sustainable sources.
It should be a cause for optimism. Yet it’s only half the story.
Just because more of the meat being sold in the EU is from locally reared animals, sadly, it doesn’t mean it isn’t tainted by environmental degradation.
The meat industry relies on huge quantities of soybean animal feed to raise livestock. The vast majority of it is imported from Latin America. There, the clearing of lands for soybean production is a major cause of deforestation and land rights’ abuses.
This huge market in soybean imports from South America - in particular Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina – accelerated after 2001 and the UK’s foot-and-mouth epidemic. This was widely attributed to a farmer feeding pigs raw food waste, known as swill. The EU subsequently banned pigswill, and farmers turned to imported soybean to feed their livestock.
Campaigners have long highlighted the heavy toll soy production exacts in the places it’s produced; while a 2013 a European Commission study estimated that soy expansion was responsible for nearly half of the deforestation associated with agricultural products imported by EU countries between 1990 and 2008.
Yet while the EU’s complicity in importing soy from South America that’s causing environmental destruction is clear, unravelling the supply chains - and linking specific on the ground abuses to the EU market and the major agribusinesses who supply it with soy - is far more difficult.
Today, March 26, the US NGO Mighty Earth (with support from Fern) releases the result of a lengthy investigation which makes detailed links between deforestation hotspots, soy production and the EU market.
Investigators visited soy plantations across 4,200 kilometres of the Gran Chaco, an ecosystem spanning Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Chaco holds one of the largest remaining tracts of native vegetation in South America, second only to the Amazon – but in recent years its forests have been converted into agricultural plantations – mostly for soybean farming and cattle ranching – at a disturbing rate.
The Mighty Earth team used satellite maps to find locations where soy production and deforestation overlapped and visited 20 of these sites. There they found recent deforestation, some of it illegal, and interviewed soy farmers who revealed which transport companies they sell soy to. The researchers then traced the soy grown on these lands to ports where major agribusiness traders operate and where some of it is shipped to Europe.
Furthermore, the researchers interviewed locals who provided disturbing testimony of the impact on both human and animal health of the widespread use of the herbicides in soy production.
All told, the findings in today’s report only intensify the urgency for the EU to act to end its Member States’ role in fuelling this destruction.
Earlier this month, the EU released a long-awaited feasibility study outlining how it would achieve its aim of halting deforestation by 2020. While the study correctly identified the underlying causes of deforestation, there is – as yet – no indication whether it will take the concrete steps to address them.
But it must. If it can pass regulations ensuring that the fish we eat and timber we buy is legal, then the EU can ensure that food we eat is free from deforestation, land grabs and other human rights abuses.