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How Eating Meat Increases Demand for Soybeans and Threatens the Amazon

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How Eating Meat Increases Demand for Soybeans and Threatens the Amazon

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More and more of the world’s farmlands are being used to grow soybeans. It’s not to meet the needs of tofu, tempeh and miso lovers (though consumption of these has been on the rise) but of meat eaters.

Since the 1960s, soybeans have been cultivated predominantly to produce soybean meal, one part of which can be mixed with four parts of another grain (most often corn) to produce feed for livestock and chickens. This demand for high-quality protein to mix into animal feed is endangering ecosystems like Brazil’s Amazon Basin, home to some of the richest biodiversity of wildlife and fauna in the world and the cerrado, 1.2 million square miles of savannah that is fast being converted into farmlands.

Aerial view of a large soy field eating into the tropical rainforest. Photo credit:
Shutterstock

Soybeans originated in China. The country is the third biggest consumer of soybeans in the world, though—the result of the Chinese government’s 1995 decision to become self-sufficient in wheat production—it now produces far less than needed and relies heavily on imports from the top three soybean producers in the world, the U.S., Brazil and Argentina. As Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute writes, the U.S. now produces about 80 million tons of soybeans, Brazil, 70 million tons and Argentina, 45 million tons.

In 2011, China produced about 14 million tons of soybeans, the same as it did in 1995. But the country consumed 70 million tons, meaning it imported some 56 million tons from elsewhere. Only about 10 percent of all of these soybeans was eaten as tofu or some other food; the rest were crushed for animal feed and soybean oil.

Indeed, soybeans, as Brown notes, are “far more pervasive in the human diet than the visual evidence would indicate” as they are an ingredient in many processed foods.

The U.S. is the biggest producer and the biggest consumer of soybeans. More land in the country is now devoted to soybean production than to wheat. Brazil and Argentina are at risk of becoming soybean monocultures, as the area they have planted in soybeans exceeds or doubles that used to plant other grains.

In Brazil, the cerrado has been increasingly used for agriculture following the discovery that adding phosphorus and lime could make its soil fertile. The cerrado also now provides more than 70 percent of the country’s beef cattle production. The cerrado remains a key ecological site; besides the Amazon, it feeds into two other major water basins, the Paraguay and São Francisco Rivers. Clearing the cerrado for agricultural and other uses has certainly been detrimental for its ecosystems, Brown writes:

Since 1970, the forested area in the Amazon Basin has shrunk some 19 percent from its 400 million hectares. For the cerrado, it is estimated that roughly half of its original 200 million hectares has been lost. In both cases, soybean expansion has played a significant role.

In Brazil, government initiatives to improve monitoring of deforestation have helped to slow the clearing of land. Environmental groups are also putting the pressure on major soybean buyers to agree to a moratorium in buying soybeans produced on deforested land.

But the rapid rate at which soybean consumption has grown around the world seems likely to continue as demand for meat, milk and eggs continues. In Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere, economic pressure to clear land and convert more of the cerrado for agricultural uses will continue.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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