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Soy destroying the Amazon rainforest
Where does the 250-million-ton world soybean crop go? One tenth or so is consumed directly as food—tofu, meat substitutes, soy sauce, and other products. Nearly one fifth is extracted as oil, making it a leading table oil. The remainder, roughly 70 percent of the harvest, ends up as soybean meal to be consumed by livestock and poultry.
So although the soybean is everywhere, it is virtually invisible, embedded in livestock and poultry products. Most of the world harvest ends up in refrigerators in such products as milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, ham, beef, and ice cream.
Satisfying the global demand for soybeans, growing at nearly 6 million tons per year, poses a challenge. The soybean is a legume, fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, which means it is not as fertilizer-responsive as, say, corn, which has a ravenous appetite for nitrogen. But because the soy plant uses a substantial fraction of its metabolic energy to fix nitrogen, it has less energy to devote to producing seed. This makes raising yields more difficult.
In contrast to the impressive gains in grain yields, scientists have had comparatively little success in raising soybean yields. Since 1950, U.S. corn yields have quadrupled while those of soybeans have barely doubled. Although the U.S. area in corn has remained essentially unchanged since 1950, the area in soybeans has expanded fivefold. (See data.) Farmers get more soybeans largely by planting more soybeans. Herein lies the dilemma: how to satisfy the continually expanding demand for soybeans without clearing so much of the Amazon rainforest that it dries out and becomes vulnerable to fire.
The Amazon is being cleared both by soybean growers and by ranchers, who are expanding Brazil’s national herd of beef cattle. Oftentimes, soybean growers buy land from cattlemen, who have cleared the land and grazed it for a few years, pushing them ever deeper into the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon rainforest sustains one of the richest concentrations of plant and animal biological diversity in the world. It also recycles rainfall from the coastal regions to the continental interior, ensuring an adequate water supply for Brazil’s inland agriculture. And it is an enormous storehouse of carbon. Each of these three contributions is obviously of great importance. But it is the release of carbon, as deforestation progresses, that most directly affects the entire world. Continuing destruction of the Brazilian rainforest will release massive quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, helping to drive climate change.
Brazil has discussed reducing deforestation 80 percent by 2020 as part of its contribution to lowering global carbon emissions. Unfortunately, if soybean consumption continues to climb, the economic pressures to clear more land could make this difficult.
Although the deforestation is occurring within Brazil, it is the worldwide growth in demand for meat, milk, and eggs that is driving it. Put simply, saving the Amazon rainforest now depends on curbing the growth in demand for soybeans by stabilizing population worldwide as soon as possible. And for the world’s affluent population, it means moving down the food chain, eating less meat and thus lessening the growth in demand for soybeans. With food, as with energy, achieving an acceptable balance between supply and demand now means curbing growth in demand rather than just expanding supply.
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