Is mass production of soybeans sustainable? Evidence from South America suggests that the answer is “no.”
Making way for soy farms requires not only clearing the land needed to grow the beans, but also the development of infrastructure to transport inputs and harvested produce. To make matters worse, most soy farms grow genetically modified crops, which present additional risks to the environment.
When soybean farms take over, natural ecosystems are destroyed and biodiversity is diminished. Massive monocultures displace diversified subsistence farms, leaving local people short of food and afflicted with pesticide-induced health problems. Government funds are diverted to subsidize soybean production at the expense of investments in health and education, which would generate far more employment than mechanized soy farming.
In Brazil, one of the world’s major soybean producers, rainforests have been destroyed to meet the demand for cheap soy. Knock-on effects of soy production have included diminished soil fertility, polluted water, human rights abuses, displaced communities, and accelerated global climate change. Many of those in Paraguay have also lost their land to soy farms, triggering political and social turmoil in the region as farmers fight to regain control of their land.
Soy proponents argue that soybeans can be used to make environmentally friendly fuel; therefore, mass production of soy is good for the environment. However, this biofuel could supply only a small portion of the global demand at great cost to the planet’s natural ecosystems. Any gains in environmental friendliness from using biofuels are more than offset by the release of carbon associated with clearing rainforests, and soy-based fuel is inefficient because its production requires 27% more fossil energy than the biodiesel generated (Pimental & Patzek, 2005).
The problems caused by mass soy production in South America indicate that we should explore other options for meeting global food and energy needs.
Fearnside, P.M., “Soybean Cultivation as a Threat to the Environment in Brazil,” Environmental Conservation, 28 (1): 23-38, 2001. http://faculty.washington.edu/jhannah/geog270aut07/readings/GreenGeneRevolutions/Fearnside%20-%20SoybeanCultivationThreatEnvironment.pdf
Gordon, B., “Soy, Biofuels, Environmental Disaster in Paraguay,” Utne Blogs, 11 July 2009. http://www.utne.com/Environment/Soy-Biofuels-Environmental-Disaster-in-Paraguay-Blog-Gordon.aspx
Pimentel, D., & Patzek, T.W., “Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower,” Natural Resources Research, 14(1): 65-76, 2005. http://www.sehn.org/tccpdf/Energy-biofuel%20outputs%20&inputs.pdf
Terrain, M.V., “The Dark Side of Soy,” Utne Reader, July/August, 2007. http://www.utne.com/2007-07-01/Science-Technology/The-Dark-Side-of-Soy.aspx
World Information Transfer, “Food for Thought – Soybean Endangers Brazil Amazon Rainforest,” 17 January 2012. http://worldinfo.org/2012/01/food-for-thought-soybean-endangers-brazil-amazon-rainforest/Tweet