RTRS RT8 conference in Beijing – reflections of a Brazilian in China
The theme of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) RT8 annual conference, which took place in Beijing on May 28-30, was “Building Global Bridges for Responsible Soy.” The theme made good sense. At its very core, the RTRS is all about “building bridges” between soy farmers, traders, retailers, banks and civil society organizations. Sometimes unlikely allies, under the umbrella of the RTRS we all came together with the mutual aim to create a soy business that is more responsible. The RTRS also builds bridges between countries. Certainly the longest and most significant of these bridges is the one between China, the world’s biggest soy importer, and my home country of Brazil, the world’s biggest soy producer.
China’s imports of soy dwarf all other countries – last year it imported 60 million tonnes and almost half of that came from Brazil. Over the decade to 2010, China has displaced the European Union as the main destination of Brazilian soy exports, its market share rising to 40% in 2012. This will almost certainly rise to between 70% and 90% of Brazil’s soy exports by 2020. This represents an increase of around 5 million hectares in land planted for soy, at least half of which is likely to come from the state of Mato Grosso. It is clear that this RTRS conference could not come at a better time—that bridge building needs to start now.
With the help of the conference co-host the Chinese Soybean Industry Association, and of Solidaridad China, the Dutch Embassy and WWF China, the RTRS conference featured a line-up of eminent Chinese speakers from industry, government and academia. It was clear from the remarks of many that soy is a source of great national pride for the Chinese, as well as it should be—China was among the first countries to cultivate soybean thousands of years ago, and it still has a thriving production capacity of 14 million tonnes per year. Most of the soy produced in China is for human consumption, not surprising in a country with a long tradition of eating soy products like tofu and soy sauce.
As we heard during the conference, the Dutch NGO Solidaridad is partnering with some forward-thinking soy producers in China, helping them to move toward RTRS certification with the expectation of improved management practices, reduced reliance on inputs like pesticides, yield increases and access to an expanded global market for responsible soy (see issue 37 of the WWF Responsible Palm Oil and Soy newsletter).
Meanwhile, the country’s rising tide of development and growing middle class means more Chinese are eating more meat and dairy products. Couple this with water shortages and loss of arable land in the soy producing regions of Northeast China and it’s no wonder that China’s imports of soy to feed animals and farmed fish are rising astronomically. But how to make a certification scheme like the RTRS attractive to traders and buyers of soy in China, when clearly they can call the shots in the global soy marketplace?
Many of the speakers were clearly aware of the responsibility that China holds related to the Earths’ environmental challenges. “Global climate issues have no boundaries,” said Liu Denggao, Deputy Director of the Chinese Soybean Industry Association. Yet at the same time, the Chinese representatives focused the most on issues of domestic food safety and security. How to ensure that high quality soy is available to meet the needs of China’s growing population well into the future was an echoing theme. The role that RTRS can play in ensuring a long-term supply of soy that, among other attributes, does not contribute to global climate change was clearly already on the minds of the Chinese players at the conference.
The challenge of the RTRS and it members in the coming years will be to support Chinese companies to take concrete steps in the market for responsible soy—both as buyers and producers. You can be sure that WWF will be supporting this effort both in China and Brazil as well as in Europe where leading companies have started to enter the responsible soy market—but much more still needs to be done.
Beyond the focus on the Chinese market, the conference showcased progress by RTRS working groups and member companies, including a presentation by the RTRS on its Mapping Project for Brazil. Created through a multi-stakeholder process supported by WWF Brazil, the maps will be valuable tools to ensure that RTRS member producers in Brazil do not expand in environmentally sensitive areas.
Meanwhile the General Assembly meeting that followed the conference resulted in improvements on the RTRS soy requirements governing the use of pesticides as well as some improvements of the by-laws related to RTRS governance. European retailers bonded together to jointly support a seat on the RTRS Executive Board, demonstrating an increased level of commitment to the RTRS, which was very welcome.
In 2012, 1 million tonnes of soy were produced according to RTRS standards—but only around 40% of that was purchased by buyers from a limited number of countries, with the Dutch industry as frontrunners. Of the certified soy produced in Brazil, only 26% was purchased. WWF hopes that this increased involvement by the retail industry in Europe in RTRS will result in more purchases of responsible soy by these companies and others. Such action is urgently needed in order to reassure the producers in South America that there is a market for responsible soy. Halfway around the world, forests and savannahs such as the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco continue to be threatened by soy expansion—and currently it is European consumers who care the most about this issue. Therefore, European companies are in the best position to lead the market and set an example for companies in China.
It’s been announced that the next RTRS conference will be in Iguacu Brazil in May 2014. While it may be too soon to expect that responsible soy bridge to be completed by then, all players in the soy industry can help build it over the coming year. While China and Brazil may be the cornerstones of the effort, it’s also urgent that European companies take a leading role.