1. The Chaco forest
Skimming low over the forest with the passenger door removed, the pilot is tilting his single-propeller Cessna 172 so that the photographer can lean out of the tiny cockpit for a clear shot.
On the ground below, giant yellow bulldozers are moving in pairs, hauling thick chains through the no-longer impenetrable forest, knocking down trees like tenpins in a bowling alley. The sight of the Greenpeace plane looping back for another pass over their heads sends the bulldozer crews scurrying for cover under the remaining trees.
They are right to hide. They shouldn’t be there. 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. As the plane carries on, the huge soya fields that now patchwork this area unfold beneath us, small strips of forest still clinging on around their margins.
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 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. 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.
Here, in the north of Argentina, one of the world’s leading producers of soya, the results of its endless, restless expansion are evident.
“The chains cut through more than just the vegetation,” Noemí Cruz, a Greenpeace activist in the plane, yells over the roar of the propeller. “After the bulldozers have gone you’ll sometimes find the paw of a jaguar in the clearing.”
There are protections in place – but provincial authorities have found ways around them. As a result the deforestation rate in Argentina is one of the highest in the world. 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. The huge clearings can be visualised in miniature in the time-lapse display on the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Watch website.
Where is this soya going? There aren’t many people around the vast fields, but one grower said it would be taken south, to the port of Rosario. And then? To ports around the world, and from there to our farms.
At the vast port of Rosario, nestled on the wide Paraná river, 185 miles inland from the coastal capital Buenos Aires, grain arrives from all over the country, on barges, trains and trucks. “There are about 1,500 trucks arriving here daily at harvest time,” says one of the truck drivers waiting to unload his cargo into a grain silo in the port terminal of the grain giant Cargill. Hundreds line up outside the individual port terminals of ADM, Bunge and Louis Dreyfus too (the four companies are collectively known as the ABCD of international grain trading). The vast majority of Argentina’s grain exports are shipped through Rosario and its sister port San Lorenzo, just 18 miles up-river.
But the lack of a public traceability system makes it practically impossible to determine where the soya is coming from. “It’s too difficult to trace soya in Argentina,” says Pablo Cortese, of Argentina’s food and drug administration (Senasa). “The soya is first bought by local grain wholesalers, who not only buy the soya from different farmers but sometimes also from different regions. All that soya is mixed in their silos, making traceability impossible already at that first stage of the process. Then the port terminals receive trucks from a large number of different wholesalers. So it’s impossible to say, ‘This particular grain of soya came from this particular farm.’”
However, Cortese believes that Argentina could introduce a soya traceability system. “The citrus fruit we export to Europe, for example – I can tell you exactly which particular farm in the province of Tucumán any particular lemon or orange came from.”
He regrets that the same kind of traceability is not in place for soya, which represents more than 25% of Argentina’s exports, but places the responsibility on Argentina’s buyers. “If the big grain traders demanded it, the same way that citrus fruit buyers demand it, Argentina would have no choice but to comply. It’s the buyer who imposes traceability always.”
Dreyfus, Cargill, ADM and Bunge all told the Guardian via email that they had been doing significant work to improve the traceability of their soya. (Full statements available here.)
“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. The export boom for commodities like soya bean helped Argentina’s economy grow a staggering yearly average 7.7% between 2004-10, after its cataclysmic 2001-2002 economic crash. Argentina spent much of the windfall paying off debt, including the cancellation of its entire IMF debt in 2006.
A steady stream of buyers and their hauliers are queuing at the port of Liverpool after a bulk carrier holding Argentinian soya is given the green-light to berth and unload its cargo, having spent days out at anchor off the north Wales coast. One of Britain’s largest feed manufacturers has deliveries in this shipment, as do a host of smaller companies.
This is where the seeds of today’s giant global soya trade were sown, just over a century ago. Before that soya beans had been grown and used only in Manchuria and China but in 1907, 400-500 tonnes of soya beans from Hankow, China, were sold to an oilseed crusher in this port of Liverpool, who turned it into soya oil and soya meal, both of which immediately found hungry markets. The oil was used in paints, in soaps, in food and, as the first world war began, as a raw material for nitroglycerine explosives. The meal, meanwhile, was a useful new protein to add to the mixed feeds given to dairy cattle. After a few failed enterprises and scandals, a group of determined US farmers, businessmen and scientists set about working out the most efficient and safe ways to process it: the “wonder bean” was born, and by the 1940s the US had become the world’s leading soya producer.
The UK and EU don’t grow much soya and so the EU now imports about 15m tonnes of un-ground soya beans, and about 19m tonnes of crushed meal, while in 2017 the UK alone imported 2m tonnes of oilcake. The biggest importer by far however is China, the one-time home of soy. In 2017 China imported a breathtaking 96m tonnes of soya beans. For the exporters – America, Brazil and Argentina – soya is big business.
Imposing fences surround the feed plant belonging to NWF Agriculture, nestled in an industrial estate near Chester. Huge metal machines grind maize, wheat and soya, creating a dull and persistent hum across the estate, while others mix them together in varying ratios, and splutter them out into white sacks.
Today world compound feed production is estimated to be 1bn tonnes a year, generating an estimated turnover of more than £300bn. And the market is set to expand further. NWF Agriculture is one of the UK’s feed-producing majors, feeding one in six cows, and generating revenues in 2018 of £169m.
Modern farm animals have moved on from slops, the insects they picked out of the ground, the grass on a marginal bit of land, supplemented with bits of feed here and there. Like many modern humans they 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.
The farmers – most of them – are fully appreciative of modern feed. The Guardian spoke to one dairy farmer who had been farming his whole life and who buys his feed from NWF Agriculture, and sells his milk to Cadbury (“a very good contract”). He said: “Our feed is analysed for quality and to make sure it’s good value. We tend to stay with certain products for a long time. That’s our business ethos, we haven’t been chopping and changing. We wouldn’t use it if we weren’t happy. We think it’s good.”
Choices are fairly stark. Standard feed costs about £250 a tonne; organic feed, with certified soya, is closer to £460 per tonne. Raising cattle on grass doesn’t mean you save money: Anna Blumfield raises Pasture for Life-certified cows on Deersbrook farm, and points out that because the animals take 24-26 months to get ready, rather than the 18 months of a high-protein fed cow, and because they rent the pasture which feeds the animals, there is no saving on feed.
“We try to avoid soy as much as possible,” says Daniel Hoeberichts of Brambletye Orchard farm, “but chickens need some form of protein.” His biodynamic chickens roam a Sussex orchard and get a third of their diet from whatever they find in the soil: earthworms and insects, with home-made, carefully balanced feeds of organic oats, wheat and soya to make up the rest.
He is well aware of the problems of soya and its sources, “but the problem is that the animals do need protein, and soya is the best source for that”.
“You can’t really raise pigs or poultry on forage-based diets,” says Gillian Butler, senior lecturer in the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University, “and no single commodity can totally replace soya – all alternative feeds have some limitations.”
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 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. Tesco and Marks & Spencer are at the forefront of these efforts, working with the Roundtable on Sustainable Soya that was set up by the UK government last year. When we contacted them to ask about the likely deforestation in their supply chain, both came back with detailed plans and specific targets.
Most of them are starting with a credit system that finances farmers who are developing sustainable soya set-ups. Tesco’s spokesman pointed out to us that, yes, “there is a problem with soya traceability in general”, so they are supporting the credit system while they work simultaneously on the traceability problem. Their next step will be to buy from farms that have been certified deforestation-free, and then, ideally, certified regions.
But it could be argued that the supermarket model of buying big and selling cheap has played its own part in this problem. In order to sell shoppers the famous £2 chickens, margins have to be shaved to a cigarette-paper slenderness. When cheapness is the main consideration, the cheapest source of protein will be the only possibility.
So here it is. You’re peeling open the bar of chocolate; the cheese has been heaped, deliciously, onto the cracker; the roast chicken arrives on a mouth-watering mound of roast potatoes and vegetables, all, perhaps, accompanied with a shadowing, at the back of your mind, of guilt. After all, we’re the people who buy this stuff.
Are our politicians doing anything? We currently spend hundreds of millions of pounds on combating deforestation overseas as part of our environment 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?
When the Guardian asked Defra whether they were aware of the problem and whether they were engaging with the Argentinian government on the subject, we were referred to the Department of International Trade. DIT told us: “We share concerns about the increase in deforestation across South America. The key to tackling this is to work in partnership with countries in the region. The UK is working to protect forests in Argentina through our International Climate Finance and Latam Forest Biodiversity and Resilience projects.” The latter is an education and awareness programme that has spent £900,000 in Argentina, according to DIT.
Is there anything that we, as consumers, can actually do? Dr Chris West, who works on soya and supply chains for the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, suggests the following:
Where soya-based products are used, look for certified standards such as ProTerra or RTRS that “guarantee” the soya is deforestation free.
Given the lack of information on what animals are fed, we should cut down on meat consumption. This is the only way to decrease soya-dependence and reduce pressure on these environments.
Review the policies and commitments of retail outlets and manufacturers. Do they have strong statements on zero-deforestation, and evidence of working towards these targets? Do they have stringent requirements on their supply chain?
Support NGOs working with – or lobbying – private and public sector organisations to change practice.
The government has helped to set up the UK’s Roundtable on Sustainable Soya, as well as the Global Resources Initiative, two industrial forums looking for answers to problems that the far-sighted business leaders understand are only going to get worse. At the moment they’re considering voluntary initiatives, but Jonathan Gorman of Efeca, the organisation supporting the two forums, says that there is awareness that that may not be enough, that industry is aware that regulation may have to be on the table, and that they need to move together. “There is huge energy to crack on … There comes a time when you can’t just clean up your own act.”
Calls for some kind of due diligence law, similar to France’s of 2017 , are gathering strength. Our own modern slavery act compels all companies over a certain size to state what they are doing to check their supply chain for slavery; a due diligence law might do the same for deforestation, or for other environmental and human rights issues.
Soya, after all, is just one small component in the vast four-dimensional puzzle of international trade that puts food on our plates at one end, and leads back to falling trees, or vanishing species, or polluted water at the other. Nations have been trading goods for as far back as there have been nations, but the complexity and length of those supply chains has multiplied exponentially.
And yet complexity is not the problem. With the help of computers that we have designed we are more than capable of breaking down and apart those supply chains, of focusing in on the weak links and working out where the damage is being done. What is missing is the information. Companies and countries may be holding back for reasons of commercial sensitivity – or for other reasons. But without transparency, throughout these long interwoven chains, without co-operation, commercial interests will trump the environmental issues. And we will lose our forests.
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