Soya in the System

Last updated: November 2012


The Soya in the System


Eve Mitchell, EU Food Policy Analyst at Food & Water Watch Europe, looks at the impacts of a globalised market for soya beans.

As food costs spike in the wake of spiralling prices for commodities like soya and maize, we can no longer avoid a critical examination of the real costs of food production. This should include an honest assessment of why there is still hunger amid plenty. Industrial soya is a good place to

soya beans

Soya Bean Production, Bolivia. Photo Credit: CIAT. 


The expansion of fields into fragile ecosystems like the Amazon and Cerrado in Brazil are infamous, but only part of the story. The soya-industrial complex harms consumers and farmers too, doing clear social and economic damage, while benefiting the monopolies that seek a globalised food trade and weaker safety nets for family farmers. As consumers, we are the ultimate cause, but also the cure.

What we eat here in Europe is changing dramatically. We now eat more, cheaper meat and processed, industrialised fast food, brought to you by giant agribusinesses and food multinationals. By 2009, McDonald’s earned more revenue from Europe (41%) than the U.S. (35%). Our changing food habits are also contributing to rising EU obesity levels.


Driving intensification

Our new food habits have a plethora of serious, wide-ranging consequences. European pig and poultry industries have become dependent on cheap imported feed, much of which contains industrial soya. This encourages the growth of factory farms — where more animals are squeezed into cramped conditions, and which produce at least 240 million metric tonnes of solid manure and slurry each year polluting the land, water and air.

Cheap soya has also helped consolidate farming in the hands of industry, reducing the number of European pig and chicken farmers, while expanding the scale of the remaining farms enormously. By 2007, 74 million pigs (half the pigs in the EU) were fattened on the largest 1% of holdings. Shockingly, the top 20% of the largest pig and poultry farms take 63% of the sector’s earnings – the greatest income inequality in EU agriculture.

This soya-fuelled factory farming underpins other corporate concentrations. In the EU giant food retailers drive the family-owned grocers, butchers and fishmongers (that used to spend money locally) out of business. This takes money out of communities and sends it to corporate shareholders around the world. The policies of these major multiples mean farmers on smaller- and medium-sized farms are working harder but earning less, and their farms are rapidly disappearing.

While supermarkets rake in huge profits, the original 15 countries in the EU lost 25% of all farms (1.7 million) between 1995-2007, while from 2005-2008 the number of chickens in the EU-15 rose 10%, and the number of pigs rose nearly 3 million between 2004-2006. Much of the soya used in EU farms comes from South America, where European demand for low-cost animal feed has led to soyabean cultivation on vast plantations.

Landowners have coerced small farmers to sell or rent their land and workers have reportedly been exploited or enslaved in Brazil. This concentration of land ownership and access to it means rural poverty persists amid booming production and increased profits for the few powerful landowners.

Some 80% of EU soyameal comes from Brazil and Argentina, where soya was a key catalyst for soya plantations leading to the clearance of 44.5 million acres of forest. What’s more, Argentina’s 2007 EU soyabean exports held 14.9 trillion litres of ‘virtual water’ (water taken out of the local watershed to produce a product for export).


Driving genetic modification

In 2009, Brazil and Argentina were also the second- and third-largest cultivators of genetically modified (GM) crops reliant on chemicals tailored to the GM seeds. In 1996, farmers in Argentina applied 13.9 million litres of glyphosate to combat weeds on GM soya plantations. By 2008, GM cultivation nearly tripled, but glyphosate applications surged fourteen-fold (to 200 million litres), clearly exposing GM industry claims their products reduce chemical use.

In 2008, Monsanto made a gross profit of almost US$2 billion on Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides – about a third of the company’s US$6.2 billion in gross profits. Widespread glyphosate application has led to herbicide-tolerant weeds, which can lead to higher herbicide applications, at a cost to farmers, and lower yields. At least 15 weed species worldwide have developed resistance to glyphosate, and the problem is spreading every year.


Driving pollution

What’s worse, this ballooning glyphosate use has horrific results for local people. In August an Argentinian court found two farmers guilty of illegally using agrochemicals near homes. The case was brought by a community organisation set up in 2001 to investigate the high incidence of birth defects, infant deaths and rare diseases in the area.

Many plantations use aeroplanes to spray GM soya fields, and many communities under the drift face severe health problems. More lawsuits are expected, and an ongoing judicial inquiry is examining the wider health effects of agrochemicals. The group representing Argentinian agrochemical companies maintains the products meet international safety standards as long as they are used properly, but hiding behind weak safety standards is not enough.

This case was closely watched, so the issues are well-known, but the BBC announcement of trial results failed to mention either GM crops or glyphosate – perhaps an indication of the detail missing in the mainstream media’s coverage of this issue.


Meat, eggs and dairy

While European pressure groups decry the use of Latin American soya, the vast majority of the GM imports are hidden from European consumers. The meat, eggs and milk from livestock fattened on GM feed do not have to be labelled. This means there is no informed choice for consumers, many of whom reject GM foods.

People may have been fooled into believing GMOs were withdrawn from the food chain when they have been unwittingly supporting the GM industry through soya in animal feed. Other serious problems bear down on us. Soya is used to fulfill mandatory bio-diesel targets in direct competition with food needs. Additionally, the industrial soya complex is pushing hard to expand soya use in factory fish farming with little or no regard for the impacts on fish that cannot naturally eat soya or the wider marine ecosystem into which it will be dumped. Something has to give.


Blatant greenwashing

Big business responded to criticism with the Roundtable on Responsible Soya (RTRS), a voluntary certification scheme and blatant greenwashing exercise. The RTRS is roundly rejected by hundreds of organisations around the world for ignoring real solutions like land reform and finding alternatives to soya-fuelled factory farming. RTRS members, including Cargill and Monsanto, claim to set a standard for ‘responsible’ production of industrial soya.

Yet the criteria accept GM soya as ‘responsible’, and in reality there is little or no monitoring of plantation adherence to very weak standards, so the ‘auditing’ process is little more than a rubber stamp on existing practice. The RTRS uses what it calls ‘mass balance’ traceability, whereby soya cargoes partially meeting RTRS criteria are wholly certified ‘responsible’. This means consumers cannot know if products carrying an RTRS logo actually contain any ‘responsible’ soya – indeed it could be produced to the lowest possible standards.

There are better ways to produce our food. The EU simply cannot continue to rely on cheap soya, effectively exporting the damage of our food choices, and maintain credible claims to be pursuing sustainability. Instead we need to shop smart and press for policies to foster a more just and sustainable food system.

We can start by removing agriculture from international trade agreements. Instead nations should pursue farm policies that promote sustainable production and food sovereignty, and food should be clearly labelled to show where non-GM feed was used so the market can operate


For more information, including full references, see the Food & Water Europe report The Perils of the Global Soya Trade at







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