Along with the loss of natural ecosystems, soy production raises a number of environmental and social issues

Soy is an intensively grown crop, with high demands for resources such as energy, water, chemicals and soil. And as it is often grown on land that has been converted from forest to farm land it is considered to be contributing to large scale deforestation.

Life cycle analysis of soy production in the Cerrado, Brazil, found annual soil erosion losses of 8 tonnes per hectare which leads to loss of organic matter, compaction and acidification and loss of water quality. Encouragingly the use of notill methods is increasing with a consequent decrease in erosion. However notill isn’t used everywhere and erosion can be as high as 19- 30 tonnes per hectare per year with the boom in soy markets encouraging farmers to plant on more erodible soils.
The impact of soy production on the water cycle varies greatly between countries and regions. Soybean used 4% of global irrigation water in 1997- 2000 but this use is not evenly spread; for example soy is mainly a rain fed crop in South America but is much more heavily irrigated elsewhere it’s grown. The soil in soy bean fields is usually more compacted than the soil in tropical forests so when it rains the water tens to run off rather than sinking down into deeper soils and groundwater. The concern is that wide conversion to intensive soy cultivation will therefore reduce water availability in the long term. Water quality and quantity is also very much impacted by soil erosion and agrochemical residues.
Modern farming technology requires intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The use of agrochemicals is one of the main environmental threats linked to soy production as it causes soil contamination and has huge impacts on water quality and biodiversity. Agrochemicals use can also affect human health: a study in Mato Grosso, for example, tested 62 samples of breast milk and found traces of one or more toxic agrochemicals in all of them. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics estimates that 35% of all pesticides used in Brazil are for soy farming.
The scale of soy monoculture is unprecedented. As with any system of production that cultivates single crops over vast areas, soy monocultures minimize ecological services and become more dependent on chemicals to control pests such as insects and fungi. The scale of the monoculture itself creates ecological risks, including new or growing pest and disease problems such as soybean rust, which has risen dramatically in Brazil.
Soy cultivation: Social impacts+
Large scale land use change creates social change, along with many claims and counterclaims about the costs and benefits of development. Despite a lot of talk and publicity, there have been relatively few detailed social research projects into the impacts of soy expansion. A recent working paper found that soy expansion in the Amazon region has reduced several poverty indicators and raised median rural incomes, but at the same time has increased levels of inequality and continued a process of consolidation of land holdings into the hands of fewer people. Despite the large growth in Argentina’s soy exports, one of the few studies available found no systematic relationship between soy expansion and improved living standards of the local populations.
Human Rights+

NGOs have documented cases of land eviction, misuse of pesticides and, in Paraguay, violent suppression of land protests related to soy. Greenpeace has documented use of slaves in soy farms in the Amazon region, with workers being duped into coming to ranches where their papers are taken away and they are forced to work.

The Brazilian government keeps a ‘dirty list’ of farms successfully prosecuted: in 2004, for example, it intervened in 236 cases of slavery in soy farms involving over 6,000 labourers including 127 children.

The problem, once exposed, has now largely been addressed. The NGO GRAIN has documented cases of land grabbing associated with soy in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

Eviction of indigenous communities has also been reported from northwest Argentina and eastern Paraguay, where indigenous groups who have depended on the forest for centuries have been displaced and now live in poverty. A study in Argentina’s Chaco region documented 224 land conflicts, including a number related to soy, affecting 127,886 people on more than 2.7 million ha: one quarter of the families were evicted.

Land concentration+
Most soybean production in North and South America operates on an industrial scale, which tends to disadvantage smallholders. The expansion of medium and large scale producers can cause land concentration which may, in turn, displace local people and take away their livelihood.

The majority of the land used for soy in the Cerrado and Amazon in Brazil is controlled by a few major owners, with many farms averaging 1,000 ha and some reaching 50,000 ha (or about 70,000 football fields).

In Chaco province, Argentina, where soy has replaced typical smallholder crops such as cotton, the number of farmers of fewer than 100 ha fell by 80% while the number of farms over 1,000 ha increased by 230% between 1998 and 2002.

By contrast, most soy in China and India is grown by smallholders; while productivity is lower, the economic benefits are spread much more widely.
The impact on agricultural labour depends on what soy production is replacing. Employment opportunities are likely to be higher in soy farming than in cattle ranching, but lower where soybean displaces traditional cultivation activities. In the Americas income tends to benefit a small group of larger enterprises rather than a large number of smaller farms. It has been estimated that conversion to soy has eliminated four out of five farm jobs in parts of Argentina. In India and China, by contrast, soy provides an important source of income and employment for several million smallholders.
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A soy worker in the field in Argentina © Franko Petri/WWF


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