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New Study Finds China and EU Soy Imports Are Increasing Brazil's Deforestation

Climate
New Study Finds China and EU Soy Imports Are Increasing Brazil's Deforestation
The vast scale of native vegetation clearance for industrial soy cultivation in Brazil is apparent in this aerial image of the Cerrado. Jim Wickens Ecostorm / Mighty Earth (2017)

By Chris Arsenault

A first ever study has provided detailed estimates of greenhouse gas emissions across the entire soy producing agribusiness sector in Brazil. The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, found that countries and companies in the European Union and China importing soy from Brazil have driven deforestation there, causing a marked increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly when the soy came from certain regions.


While deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has garnered global attention, a new wave of precipitous native vegetation loss is being seen in the Cerrado, Brazil's savanna biome, and is a major cause of concern to climate change researchers. Brazil's Cerrado grasslands are being cleared of forest at an alarming rate to expand soy plantations — along with ranches — to meet global demand.

In fact, soy exported from newly cleared lands in some savanna municipalities caused the release of as much as 200 times more greenhouse gas emissions than soy coming from other parts of Brazil, according to the new study, which was conducted by researchers from Germany, together with partners from Spain, Belgium and Sweden.

The extreme regional disparities in emissions from different parts of the country came as a surprise to the researchers, and could offer a detailed map to policymakers as to where to focus carbon emission reduction efforts to achieve the greatest benefit.

"One of the big takeaways: there is no average supply chain for soy exports from Brazil. We need to take into account these [major] regional differences," in deforestation, transportation infrastructure, and resulting emissions, said Dr. Neus Escobar, the study's lead author and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany.

A soy plantation in the Brazilian Cerrado. Alicia Prager / Mongabay.

The new Brazil-wide soy dataset also offers insights into how countries and companies contribute to carbon emissions via deforestation occurring in Brazil. The information could help nations and the soy commodities industry reduce deforestation, and thereby emissions, by fine tuning their supply chains, purchasing decisions and climate change mitigation plans.

"This gives crucial information to stakeholders to improve environmental performance," Escobar added in an interview with Mongabay. Companies importing Cerrado soy now have been alerted that deforestation there is producing high greenhouse gas emissions, so they can work actively with soy producers to avoid clearing new land for Cerrado plantations, she said.

Total greenhouse gas emissions from Brazilian soy exports were estimated at 223 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. China was the largest importer of Brazilian soy during the study period which ran from 2010 to 2015, and responsible for 51% of associated carbon dioxide emissions, while the European Union was responsible for 30%.

But per unit of soy, Europe's carbon footprint from Brazilian imports is larger than China's, the study said. European Union imports were also more likely to cause new deforestation (causing more recent carbon releases), compared to imports from China.

"This [finding] is surprising because China is a much bigger [soy] importer," Javier Godar, a study co-author and senior researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute said in an interview with Mongabay. "In the end, Europe is importing a bit more carbon dioxide emissions associated [with] deforestation embedded in soy [production] than China."

That's because much of the soy consumed in EU countries like Spain and Germany comes from the northern Cerrado where current rates of deforestation are especially high now, Godar explained. China, on the other hand, imports most of its Brazilian soy from the southern Cerrado, which has already converted a lot of its native vegetation to croplands.

A tractor works to turn deforested land into a soy field in São Desidério, Bahia state, Brazil in 2017. Jim Wickens Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

“Underground Forest”

Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty Earth, a U.S.-based environmental NGO, said the study is crucial for highlighting deforestation risks in Brazil's Cerrado. "It's one of the world's most biodiverse savannas and a huge concern for people who care about some of the world's most beautiful and threatened species." Also, "Deforestation is one of the biggest drivers of climate change."

The region has been dubbed an "underground forest" due to the complex root systems of shrubs and small trees, which retain soil and sequester tremendous sums of carbon, she added in an interview with Mongabay. "When the soy industry moves in, all of that is ripped up and burned. All the carbon stored in the roots, trees and soils is burned and released into the atmosphere."

The Cerrado, dubbed "Brazil's last agricultural frontier" has some of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, von Reusner said, with only 50% of its native vegetation remaining. The greatest CO2 emissions occurring in the Cerrado during the 2010-15 study period arose in the so-called MATOPIBA region, comprising the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia. Though the study offered no current deforestation or carbon emission data, MATOPIBA continues to be an agribusiness powerhouse today, a center of soy production and deforestation.

This map shows total carbon dioxide emissions embedded in Brazilian soy imports for different regions between 2010 and 2015. The European Union imported 67.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions embodied in Brazilian soy, while China imported 118.1 million tons of emissions. Escobar, N. et al.

This graph shows total carbon dioxide emissions embodied by Brazil soy imports in major soy importing countries from 2010 to 2015. Escobar, N. et al.

Examining Total Emissions From Soy

The study is the first to provide an estimate of greenhouse gas emissions across the entire soy sector in Brazil with such a high level of detail. To come to their conclusions, researchers analyzed data from 90,000 different soy supply chains between 2010 and 2015.

Soy is the most internationally traded agricultural commodity on earth, so analyzing data and strategies to reduce its impact on climate change is crucial for policymakers who want to preserve forests while simultaneously reducing emissions.

"This study does a good job in noting where along the supply chain we can pinpoint to reduce emissions," said University of California, Santa Barbara, land systems scientist Robert Heilmayr. He researches deforestation in Brazil and was not involved in the recent study.

The depth of the paper's data helps underscore how the Cerrado is "a new frontier in deforestation," he added, and establishes the importance of including the savanna in any plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to other soy producing regions of Brazil.

In the Amazon rainforest, a moratorium on clearing new lands for soy was launched in 2006, which greatly reduced the conversion of rainforests to make way for new soy plantations. The moratorium continues to work, though Amazon deforestation is increasing due to intense cattle ranching and mining pressures. One study found that the slowing of soy growth in Amazonia, merely shifted and intensified soy production in the Cerrado.

Extending the Amazon Soy Moratorium into the Cerrado, via the so-called Cerrado Manifesto or other initiatives — something transnational commodities companies have strongly resisted — could help reduce deforestation related to soy there, Heilmayr and others contend.

Data was gathered from 90,000 soy supply chains and shows how the amount of greenhouse gases released from soy production, processing and export varies between Brazilian municipalities, and from year to year. This map indicates carbon dioxide emissions from soy exports from around Brazil between 2010-15. Escobar, N. et al.

Complicated Supply Chains

Deforestation isn't the only cause of soy-related emissions, Escobar explained. Transportation of soy from remote rural production areas to the South American coast especially by truck is another significant driver of carbon emissions.

In some inland communities in Brazil's center-west region, where poor infrastructure means soy needs to be trucked over long distances, transportation accounts for about 60% of total carbon emissions, especially from export-oriented municipalities in Goiás and Mato Grosso states. This has in part justified vigorous efforts to construct less carbon intensive rail lines and industrial waterways connecting Brazil's interior with its coastal ports — though environmentalists worry about the deforestation such infrastructure might bring with it.

The global trade in agricultural food products more than doubled between 2000 and 2015, from US$600 billion to over US$1,300 billion, according to data from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). But most of the soy exported from Brazil isn't actually eaten by people, explained Reusner; it's primarily used for animal feed or biodiesel.

To produce enough food for a growing global population, she said transnational companies should incentivize producers to not clear forests for new plantations, but plant soy on land that's already been degraded. Studies have shown that Brazil has plenty of degraded land to meet global commodity demands, without causing any new deforestation.

"There is enough degraded land across Latin America to meet the needs of global markets to avoid compromising some of our last remaining ecosystems," she said.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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