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Soy: Industry’s Miracle Bean in Brazil

The industrial cultivation of soy in Brazil results in deforestation and the expulsion of small-scale farmers from their land.

(Photo: United Soybean Board)

Soy was initially introduced to Brazil as part of a US military aid package. Today, its industrial cultivation results in a number of negative consequences, including deforestation and the expulsion of small-scale farmers from their land.

George Washington Carver, a 19th century African-American scientist, made inroads into industrial uses for agricultural crops, including research on the production of biodiesel from soybeans. The legume arrived in Germany in the 1930s and Hitler used it as a substitute for petroleum. In Brazil, it was introduced during the military dictatorship (1964-1985) as part of a military aid package from the United States. Today, Brazil is the second-largest producer of soy on a global scale, after the United States. This production is concentrated in the hands of a half-dozen corporations, including Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, Bunge and Louis Dreyfus.

Along the BR-163 highway a lush, green landscape unfolds. It is, however, entirely homogenous; there is no diversity beyond soy plants. On the highway, cargo trucks clump together, demonstrating the productive potential of this region. Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso, with just 480 inhabitants, is the epicenter of soy production in this country. Over 5 million hectares of soy have been planted in Brazil, and this image of abundant production is sold to potential investors in the soy market.

Local politicians are often big soy producers. One case is that of Blairo Borges Maggi, governor of Mato Grosso in 2005, businessman and Brazilian politician. At that time he was known as the “King of Soy,” and in 2005, Greenpeace gave him the “Golden Chainsaw” award, due to the monstrous deforestation that his companies were responsible for, to make way for soy production in the Amazon.

“This ancient seed . . . is presented as a clean energy alternative, but it actually destroys biodiversity.”

However, Mato Grasso is just the tip of the iceberg. Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world, and soy is being cultivated across all its regions. “This legume is the principal raw material exported from Brazil. Soy is cultivated in all regions of this country. The states with the highest production are Mato Grosso and Paraná, which together produce a little more than half of the country’s soy,” Sebastião Pinheiro, a researcher and agronomist with the University do Rio Grande do Sul, told Truthout.

The rate of production, incentivized by the Brazilian government, is not surprising. Soy is being used strategically by the food, energy, health and biochemical industries. Through the process of refining soy oil, lecithin, an emulsifier, is obtained, which is often used in the production of processed food products such as hot dogs, mayonnaise, ice cream, chocolate bars, cereal and frozen food. It is also present in products that slow cell damage – and therefore lessen the signs of aging – to such a degree that it is considered a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy.

Soy is also indirectly present on the plates of people worldwide. According to the Association of Soy and Corn Producers of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, 80 percent of soy flour is used as a base for processed animal feed. Vegetable protein is thus transformed into animal protein, and thus soy is present in the production of meat, eggs and milk.

“What is coming in 10 years is a sort of green industrial revolution, where plants will be turned into factories.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Brazil’s national industry produces approximately 30.7 million tons of soy, of which 5.8 million tons go to the production of edible oil and 23.5 million tons go to make protein flour.

According to Pinheiro, it is not that soy itself is problematic, but that the processes of production for soy and its derivatives require huge extensions of arable land, millions of liters of water and the use of pesticides. “This ancient seed will revolutionize the processes of production dependent on petroleum, and capital will shift to those chains of production. It is presented as a clean energy alternative, but it actually destroys biodiversity.”

“Green Plastic”

Gustavo Grobo, from the Argentinian group Grobocopatel, known as the “King of Soy” in that country, mentioned in April 2014 that “what is coming in 10 years is a sort of green industrial revolution, where plants will be turned into factories.”

Biodiesel and glycerin are obtained from ground soy, together with 10 percent alcohol (methanol). Glycerin is currently beginning to reshape production processes that are dependent on petroleum. Brazil has been one of the countries at the forefront of the production of biofuels, principally from sugar cane and soy. By producing biofuels using soybeans, glycerol is obtained. It is the most recent novelty in Brazil – used principally as a substitute for propane – a resin obtained up until now from petroleum derivatives and used to make polypropolene, forming what’s called “green plastic.” Polypropolene is used in the production of packaging for food, textiles, laboratory equipment, automobile parts and many other products.

“Soy has become embedded in the petrochemical tree, from food to auto parts.”

Pinheiro argues that soy is changing the production processes that are dependent on petroleum. “Soy is the principal export product of Brazil and is strategic because it is being substituted for petroleum in the technological matrix. This petrochemical has been surpassed thanks to biotechnology,” the agronomist told Truthout.

Modern biotechnology uses living systems and organisms in the development or production of useful products, combining the fields of biology, chemistry and engineering. It is applied most commonly in the production of pharmaceuticals, in agriculture, and in the production of industrial inputs. It includes the modification of genes, including the cultivation of cell and tissue cultures, DNA recombination technology and synthetic biology.

Since the peak of petroleum production in the 1970s, and as a result of its subsequent rise in market value, the search for alternatives has become a question of national security in many countries. This is especially true for the United States, which consumes 25 percent of energy produced worldwide, with just 4 percent of the world’s population. Petroleum has also been essential for the production of plastic, auto parts and thousands of other products.

“Novartis, Bayer, Monsanto and other corporations have reduced their levels of production of agrochemicals and have instead directed a large part of their investments toward biosynthetic products, which use microorganisms, bacteria and fungi to convert simple inputs into more complex outputs. Systems are dependent on fermentation, on carbon chains or directly on the photosynthesis of the sun,” Pinheiro said. They are particularly useful in the development of new pharmaceuticals, medical treatments and vaccines.

Petrochemicals Without Petroleum

The corporation Nova Petrochemicals in Brazil is the first of its kind in this country. It uses new chains of production, principally using soy derivatives to produce impact- and heat-resistant plastics, such as auto parts and construction materials. Nova Petrochemicals is part of the conglomerate Quattor, made up of Petrobras and the Unipar group. In 2010, the company Braskem bought the Brazilian company Quattor and the US company Sunoco Chemicals.

Currently, Braskem is the leader in thermoplastic resins in Latin America and is the third-largest producer on the continent. It has 18 plants in Brazil, and produces over 11 million tons of thermoplastic resin and other petrochemical products. In total, according to the company’s website, it manufactures 16 million tons of products in 36 plants located in Brazil, the United States and Germany.

Braskem offers countless products, from construction materials and beauty accessories to air fresheners, solvents and automobile parts. According to the company, these products contribute to the global reduction of greenhouse gases.

“Soy has become embedded in the petrochemical tree, from food to auto parts,” Pinheiro told Truthout.

The Biggest Producers in the World

According to an October 2014 report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), global production of soy in 2014-15 is estimated to be 311.2 million tons. Production in 2013 was 285 million tons. According to the USDA data, the United States has projected a production level of 106.87 million metric tons, followed by Brazil with 94 million and Argentina with 55 million. These countries are also the biggest global exporters.

“The three principal soy-producing countries produce 80 percent of global volume, which will mostly be sold to China to fatten chickens and pigs,” said Merci Farin of the Federal University of Espiritu Santo.

However, according to 2014 data from the National Supply Company (CONAB), a public enterprise of Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, the production requirement for such quantities of soy is 30.11 million hectares of land. This “requirement” has led to the decimation of entire ecosystems in order to make way for soy production.

“Bunge, ADM and Dreyfus dominated at least 95 percent of the exports from Brazil, and they are fighting for land in this country in order to be able to plant soy,” Pinheiro said.

Ford, Biofuels and the “Green Revolution”

Petroleum is at the heart of the automobile industry, present at every stage in the production chain, but at the beginning this was not a foregone conclusion. As climate change provides the impetus for new models of transportation, an unevolved automobile industry risks stagnation. “Biofuels are an alternative that looks to create a new cycle of accumulation with a new fleet of vehicles built on the logic of clean energy,” Pinheiro said.

The green revolution adopted the rationale of the production of food on a large scale in order to counteract hunger and poverty, but none of these social results came to fruition.

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, was the first businessman to apply the moving assembly-line technique in manufacturing in order to produce automobiles on a mass scale. At first, he was very interested in using the fermentation of alcohol and soy biodiesel as fuel for his cars, based on a recommendation by George Washington Carver. However, the Rockefeller family quickly made advances to consolidate their company, Standard Oil (later Exxon-Mobil), revolutionizing that industry at every level. “The technological matrix of oil was imposed by the Rockefellers, both as the principal source of energy in the chains of production and in the daily life in the United States and in the rest of the world,” Pinheiro told Truthout.

However, down the line, Hitler ended up taking advantage of the scientific advances of Washington Carver. “Germany has no oil, and Hitler used the studies about soy and started to create petrochemicals without petroleum. From 1930, soy cultivation began across the Austro-Hungarian empire,” Pinheiro said.

The first phase of the “green revolution” came about shortly after World War II. William Gaud, the director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), first used the term in 1968. The United States had discovered a way to redirect and use all of the technology developed during the war to produce food on an industrial scale. This system was implemented in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, altering the biological cycles of food production in order to obtain greater quantities in less time.

According to researcher Merci Fardin, this agricultural model consisted of using improved varieties of corn, wheat and other grains, along with huge quantities of water and agrochemicals. “The agrochemicals and all the machinery used in this ‘revolution’ is an adaptation of the war technology – principally war machinery – that was adapted to convert them into tractors. This gave way to monoculture systems, known as green deserts,” Fardin said.

The green revolution adopted the rationale of the production of food on a large scale in order to counteract hunger and poverty, but none of these social results came to fruition. “In the last 50 years, the world became impoverished and experienced famine, and today this famine is administered by corporations, who have gotten rich at the expense of hunger,” according to Fardin.

First Interference of the United States After World War II

One of the United States’ first interventions in Brazil after World War II was through agriculture, according to Sebastião Pinheiro, the agronomist. The United States introduced cotton, tobacco and improved seed varieties, soy among them. “The United States brought the complete package: the science, the technology and the financing. In an altruistic fashion, it gave all its improved seed varieties of soy to the Brazilian government,” said Pinheiro, who argues that the objective at the time was to provide continuity with the plan to reconstruct Europe, which required a source of food that would meet demand from the European population. “The North American proposal would only be completed through the implementation of industrial agriculture in the Southern Hemisphere, which is now known as the breadbasket of the world,” Pinheiro said.

“This industrial package called the green revolution was a military strategy.”

Later, through the “Brother Sam” operation – the US support behind the military dictatorship of 1964 – 100 tons of weapons and munitions, oil tankers, a fleet of combat airplanes and military equipment were sent to Brazil. The package also included, Pinheiro says, a technology package for agriculture and above all scientific research.

“The military regime in Brazil, instructed in military doctrine by the United States, used it as a pretext to combat Marxist influence, and opened the doors of Brazilian universities to the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave financial donations for the modernization of programs, curricula and training of professors in the United States,” Pinheiro said. “It was a type of agreement between the Education and Culture Ministry and USAID, which provided follow up to the research for improving and genetically modifying seeds.”

These conditions eventually permitted the concentration of land for monocultures in the hands of a half-dozen companies, Pinheiro said. He added, “This industrial package called the green revolution was a military strategy because all of the agrochemicals were produced in military factories. The principal objective of the dictatorship was to forcibly remove peasants and indigenous people from their lands, in order to concentrate the land in the hands of a few soy, sugar cane and eucalyptus-producing companies, among whom are Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Ford.”

The Death of Family Farming

In addition to the destruction of forests, soy production has stoked the large-scale use of pesticides. According to the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, the average consumption of pesticides is on the rise. In 2005, 7 kilograms per hectare were used. In 2011 that level had risen to 10.1 kilograms, an increase of 44.3 percent.

The MST fights for agrarian reform in Brazil, urging implementation of a model based on family farming. Due to this lack of agrarian reform, many peasants have decided to occupy the land. In Mato Grosso do Sul, there are 53 land settlements, the majority connected with the MST – the highest concentration in the country – that are configured like small islands within the green deserts, where diversified agriculture exists alongside the monocultures of sugar cane, eucalyptus and principally soy.

“The way out has been to produce in small quantities, in an artisanal system, gradually working to regenerate the soil.”

“We are surrounded by soy, and the poison that is dispersed across the monocultures ends up on our land. You plant a native corn seed, for example, and it doesn’t germinate,” Sindy Gauber, who lives in the Geraldo García settlement in the municipality of Sidrolancia, in Mato Grosso do Sul, told Truthout. “It is difficult for us to be able to plant without coming into contact with pesticides. Our work to build an ecological and organic production is harmed by these conditions. It will take decades until we can plant the food that we consume in a totally free way.”

Beyond this, said Gauber, the few lands expropriated by the federal government to be redistributed to peasant families via a federal program are not productive lands in general, since they have been used up by monocultures.

Gauber says that many families, lacking options, end up abandoning their land in order to work in the monoculture plants. In the settlement where she lives, many families lease their land to agribusiness.

Compounding this situation is the use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds. In Brazil, GMO plantations represent over 50 percent of the territory designated for agricultural activities in the country – and the majority are GMO soy varieties.

Despite the difficulties, Gauber says that the families have created the conditions for resistance by organizing cooperatives and participating in small markets. “The way out has been to produce in small quantities, in an artisanal system, gradually working to regenerate the soil,” she said. “This disproportionate war is senseless because really those who feed the city are the small-scale farmers in Brazil. Monocultures are basically for export and for industry.”

Depraved Cycle for Peasants

Soy fields and pasture for livestock: This is the monotonous scenery that can be glimpsed along the MS-164 highway, in the municipality of Ponta Pora, in Mato Grosso do Sul, on the border with Paraguay. On the edge of this highway is also one of the biggest settlements in Brazil, taken over by social movements led by the MST in 2002. The settlement, Itamarati, covers 50,000 hectares of land and is home to 3,000 families. Ironically, it used to be a large soy-producing farm. Its owner was Olacyr de Moraes, the largest individual soy producer in the world in the 1980s.

“This disproportionate war is senseless because really those who feed the city are the small-scale farmers in Brazil.”

Itamarati has two types of land, spaces for individual plots and collective ones. The individual plots (up to 10 hectares) are home to fruit trees and vegetable gardens; most of these fruits and vegetables are consumed by residents. The 12-hectare plots are for collective production, with irrigation and collectively owned equipment, where food is planted for commercialization.

The community has a health care structure, education, two cooperatives for production development, a small commercial center and even an urban center.

Ariovaldo Ciriaco is one of the settlement’s farmers. He grows rice, manioc and peanuts. Beyond food for individual consumption, he also plants soy. “Of the total of 50,000 hectares of Itamarati, close to 20,000 of them have soy plantations,” said Ciriaco, who is a member of the Association of Cooperative Farmers and the resistance group El Dorado dos Carajas.

Ciriaco has been living in the settlement since the beginning in 2002, and says that after moving onto the land, his family and other members of the settlement were besieged by the multinational corporations that produce corn, soy and fertilizers. “The discourse that they used was that the use of products [fertilizers, pesticides and GMO seed varieties] would reduce costs and we would have greater productivity. The argument was that, using the best technology, one could work less and earn more money. Afterward, we saw that this wasn’t true. For example, in terms of corn, they said that the seeds would produce 160 sacks per hectare, but the truth is they don’t make more than 100 sacks,” Ciriaco said.

“Those who came to live and work here were either employed by a large farm or in other, smaller areas. We were not accustomed to working with soy on a large scale. So they sold us the package (seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) at expensive prices and with quantities of poison higher than necessary. So today we see the abuses they carried out because of our lack of knowledge,” he added.

Ciriaco says that a large number of the farmers ended up in a cycle of dependence on products made by multinationals like Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Bayer and Syngenta. “Their representatives in Brazil even came to us to sell their products. The package is very expensive, so families had to get into debt in order to buy it, and when they harvested, they paid the debt. This cycle of dependence is a huge problem,” he said.

The price of soy is defined by the international market, principally by the United States. Yet Ciriaco hasn’t lost his energy: His goal now is to grow crops without having to be dependent on corporations and their technology packages. “Our challenge is to stimulate agricultural diversity – invest in alternatives, in order to diminish the dependence on soy.”

Correction: The original version of this article read 5 billion hectares of soy had been planted in this region of Brazil. In fact, it is 5 million. Many thanks to the sharp-eyed reader who caught the translation error.

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