The meat and dairy industry’s demand for soya is driving an environmental crisis in one of the world’s most threatened forests.

On the ground, deep in the heart of Argentina’s Chaco forest, forest workers are clearing a government-proposed protected corridor for wildlife. Although recent reporting on deforestation has focused heavily on the Amazon, the fact is that the other ancient forests of South America – and elsewhere in the world – are disappearing too.

As giant yellow bulldozers move in pairs, hauling thick chains through the no-longer impenetrable forest, they knock down trees like tenpins in a bowling alley. The forest they are clearing is a government-proposed protected corridor for wildlife, deep in the heart of the Chaco forest. Although recent reporting on deforestation has focused heavily on the Amazon, the fact is that the other ancient forests of South America – and elsewhere in the world – are disappearing too. These trees are probably falling to make way for a crop sometimes known as the “wonder bean” or even the “Cinderella bean”: soya.

Soya is one of the four main culprits for deforestation (along with beef, wood and palm oil) and biodiversity loss as farmers clear land to grow this profitable oilseed. Our huge consumption of soya is driving two of the worst environmental crises we face. The discovery of a stable, cheap source of protein might have been a miracle for farmers – 75% of the world’s soya and maize is now fed to farm animals – but this monoculture is spreading over huge expanses of the Americas, and wiping out forests, wilderness and species as it goes.

“The thing is that Argentina has been very behind with passing environmental controls,” says Marina Engels of the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS), who are working hard on sustainable soya in Argentina and globally. “We’ve just been in economic crisis for so long, the environment has not been in our minds.”

The problem is that with its economy in perpetual flux, Argentina relies on soya for financial buoyancy. The commodity is the backbone of its economy. Combined, soya bean, soya meal and soya bean oil make up more than 25% of the country’s exports.

Crushing this small creamy bean releases both oil and a soya meal that is high in protein: it is one of a tiny group of commodities known as oilseeds. In the early part of the 20th century, the realisation by a group of determined US farmers and scientists that this cheap protein could feed farm animals turned the bean into one of the world’s most important crops, and the fuel for a huge expansion in the global production and consumption of meat.

“The chains cut through more than just the vegetation,” Noemí Cruz, a Greenpeace activist comments. “After the bulldozers have gone you’ll sometimes find the paw of a jaguar in the clearing.”

According to Nasa’s Earth Observatory, 20% of the Gran Chaco’s forest, 55,000 square miles – an area larger than England – was lost between 1985 and 2016.

Modern farm animals like many modern humans eat an entirely industrialised diet, brought to the farmer in sacks. But although the form of the diet has changed the building bricks have not: they still need protein, in whatever form it takes.

So as our global consumption of protein, in the shape of meat, rises, the amount of protein needed to produce that meat rises correspondingly. A major source of protein for those feeds, for many years, was meat and bonemeal, waste products for farmers and slaughterhouses, but in 1988 they were banned in the UK after BSE broke out and was then connected to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans – a ban that has been replicated in many other countries. And so soya, the cheapest alternative source of protein, is now absolutely critical to the world’s farmers.

Modern high-protein grain feed, combined with intense breeding work over the last 50 years, has supercharged animal growth and fattening. An employee at one feed company tells the Guardian that modern feed can get chickens to grow full-size in 40 days rather than the natural 4.5 months. “Now they get so fat, so quickly, they struggle to stand up,” he says.

It is hard to calculate just how widely soya is spread through the supply chain of our supermarket shelves. Meat (chicken, pork, beef, plus plenty of other of so-called delicacies). Milk. Eggs. Cheese. Sometimes products have dairy in them that you’ve forgotten about. Ready meals. Salad dressings. Puddings. Biscuits. Bars of chocolate.

It’s not a secret in the supermarket industry that soya is linked to deforestation and pretty much every player along the chain has made some sort of commitment to do something about it.

Are politicians doing anything? Currently, the UK spends hundreds of millions of pounds on combating deforestation overseas as part of environmental commitments. It seems ironic that we would be spending this money to combat deforestation in some parts of the world while what we eat is fuelling it in others. Would it not be cost-effective to use the money to deal with that problem?

Given the lack of information on what animals are fed, and knowing that soya goes into pretty much everything we eat,  we should cut down on meat consumption. This is the only way to decrease soya-dependence and reduce pressure on these environments.

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com