To the European eye, long accustomed to square hedgerows and neatly tilled arable land, the countryside of eastern Paraguay is unexceptional, almost pretty. The bare, rolling hills spread out languidly toward the far distance. The sky is vast, its domination of the horizon broken only by the occasional homestead, leafy copse or bulky metal silo.
But to 47-year-old Meliton Ramirez, this is no Arcadian paradise. It’s a wasteland. Juddering down a farm track in a mud-strewn Jeep, he points to a wide field buttressing the roadside. It has recently been sown with soya and the green-leafed plants are just sprouting. It looks like it could be a huge flowerbed of wild clover.
“Thirty years ago, almost all of this was woodland,” said Ramirez, who’s been a farmer in Alto Parana state all his life.
He grew up surrounded by the Interior Atlantic Forest, listening to the sound of bare-throated bellbirds and saffron toucanets. Before the advent of commercial farming, the forest covered 85 percent of eastern Paraguay. Now, with roughly 12 percent of it still standing, silence fills the air.
“There used to be 2,000 families living here. Now there’s only 30, if that,” he said.
The story of Ramirez’s home village of Minga Pora is typical of what is happening across swaths of South America. It is a story that starts on the dinner tables of rich nations, where a global hunger for meat and dairy products is fueling an ever-rising demand for the industrial farming of animals that depend on high-protein feed. At the bottom of this food chain is the soya plant.
Millions of hectares of intensively cultivated soya plants are fueling the destruction of tropical forests and savannah — displacing farmers and communities, leading to poverty, ill health and even violence, ruining habitats and exacerbating global warming.
A report by campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) published on Tuesday aims to focus the attention of UK consumers and the government on the scale of destruction caused by the mass appetite for soya. It details for the first time the cutting, burning and spraying that occurs as a consequence.
The report, What’s Feeding our Food?, will be used to launch a campaign urging the government to take action, including ending subsidies and other policies to encourage intensive farming and making sure public money spent on food is not propping up damaging practices.
Across the main soya-producing countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, an area the size of California has been cleared for this one crop, which is then exported around the world, mainly to the EU and China. As the third biggest customer in the EU, the UK requires nearly 1.2 million hectares to generate the 1.7 million tonnes of soya beans and 652,000 tonnes of crushed soya meal imported in the most recent year for which figures are available, 2006 to last year.
That provides the vast majority of soya used by UK farmers who produce 850 million broiler chickens, 855 million dozen eggs, 10 million turkeys, 4.9 million pigs, and 10 million cattle for dairy and beef. Some of this food is exported, but imports, mostly from the EU, are also reared using soya feed, the report says.
“Even though bacon, burgers, milk and cheese may be produced in the UK, most will have come from animals fed on crops grown on the other side of the world,” the report says. Nor is the pace of change slackening: this year official estimates judge that soya production will increase in all three major producers. Although demand for meat is largely flat in the UK, it is growing in developing countries.
“Growth in demand for livestock products is set to continue, leading to the conversion of more and more land for crops and grazing, further exacerbating the associated impacts,” the report says.
Attracted by generous offers from Brazilian-born soya growers, Ramirez’s neighbors began selling their plots. In a short space of time, the herbicides introduced by the new owners began to contaminate the land and water supplies. Soon his own crops began to fail. Concerned the chemicals would do his family irreparable damage, six years ago Ramirez decided he, too, would leave.
The destruction of people’s livelihoods wrought by soya has forced about 90,000 families in the neighboring state of Caaguazu to leave their homes since the mid-1990s, said Javiera Rulli, a biologist for the Asuncion-based research group BASE, and editor of a book on soya’s expansion in South America.
“The expansion of GM soya is leading to social conflict and mass migration,” she said.
Some problems are easy to measure, particularly the ongoing clearance of the Amazon and Atlantic forests and the Cerrado savannah. Only 2 percent of Paraguay’s tropical and subtropical Atlantic forest is left, according to the report — the same amount of 16th-century woodland remaining in the UK.
Others problems are anecdotal, but the report cites dozens of incidents and statistics to build up a picture of the complex chain of social problems which can be traced back to the growth of the soya farms. Then there are the health impacts of spraying fertilizers and pesticides.
In Paraguay, in the tiny rural hamlet of San Isidro, resident Cipriano Vega says there has been a surge in diseases that were almost unknown in the community previously. Diarrhea, rashes, headaches, allergies, chest infections, epilepsy and premature abortions are all commonplace now, he said.
Up to five years ago, the soya farmers used to fly over his village in crop-dusters and release their toxic chemicals indiscriminately. That practice has stopped, but the damage is now done, locals believe.
The community has requested the local government test the water supply, but to no avail. Without such data, Vega admits that it is very difficult to prove a link to the herbicides used by the soya farmers. But he and his neighbors are in little doubt.
THREAT TO HEALTH?
“The year before last, two kids were born without the ability to move their arms or legs, and two people recently died of brain hemorrhages,” he said.
Although it is hard to prove any one person or village has been poisoned by the farming chemicals, the WHO estimates that, excluding suicide, 355,000 people a year are poisoned by chemicals, and agrochemicals are a major contributor, particularly pesticides.
“Acute exposure can lead to death or serious illness,” particularly when people live close to where chemicals are used, the WHO briefing on toxic hazards said. “Long-term exposure can increase the risk of developmental and reproductive disorders, immune-system disruption, endocrine disruption, impaired nervous-system function, and development of certain cancers,” WHO said.
Not everybody accepts, however, that the problems of soya production are as widespread as campaigners claim.
Robert Newbery, the British National Farmers Union’s (NFU) chief poultry adviser, said soya products for animals were only part of a global industry that also produced soya oil for processed food, and most crops were planted on existing agricultural land.
Newbery said the NFU would support action to tackle wrongdoing by soya farmers, but said they were confident “the majority is grown ethically.”
Bunge, which with Cargill is one of the biggest soya production companies in the region, also said it had been working for many years, especially in Brazil, to make the industry more sustainable, including helping to drive through a moratorium on buying soya from newly deforested parts of the Amazon, and working with the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment on promoting best practices among producers.
“A lot has been done, but there is always more to do,” a spokesman said.
Ramirez now lives in the optimistically named El Triunfo (The Triumph), a rural settlement off the trunk road heading west from Ciudad del Este. He and his fellow subsistence farmers hope to prevent soya’s continual encroachment by joining the ownership of their lands together so the soya farmers can’t pick them off one by one.
POLICY CHANGE PUSH
Back in the UK, FoE is calling for the government to axe subsidies which encourage intensive livestock production, lobby the EU and other organizations to change trade policies and international aid which bolster the industry, and ensure that the £2.2 billion (US$3.25 billion) a year spent on food by public bodies such as schools, hospitals, prisons and care homes is not used to buy products from intensive soya-fed animals.
Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has also said that people should have at least one meat-free day a week.
“Most people don’t realize that there’s a hidden chain of events linking the meat and dairy they buy to factory farming and to climate change, deforestation and loss of livelihoods in developing countries,” said Clare Oxborrow, FoE’s senior food campaigner.
“The government must revolutionize the way that meat and dairy is produced in this country to urgently tackle these impacts while supporting sustainable UK livestock farming,” she said.
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