The hidden cost of GM animal feed
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EXTRACTS: 'The expansion of GM soya is leading to social conflict and mass migration.' - Javiera Rulli, a biologist for Asuncion-based research group BASE, and the editor of a book on soya's expansion in South America
'Most people don't realise that there's a hidden chain of events linking the meat and dairy they buy to factory farming and to climate change, deforestation and loss of livelihoods in developing countries
'The government must revolutionise the way that meat and dairy is produced in this country to urgently tackle these impacts while supporting sustainable UK livestock farming.' - Clare Oxborrow, FoE's senior food campaigner
The hidden cost of our growing taste for meat
Juliette Jowit and Oliver Balch
The Observer, Sunday The Observer, December 7 2008
The hidden cost of our growing taste for meat
As the west's appetite for meat increases, so too does the demand for soya - used as animal feed by farmers. But the planting of huge tracts of land is causing deforestation and destroying eco-systems in developing countries. Juliette Jowit and Oliver Balch in Minga Pora, Paraguay, report
[image caption: Ranchers, soybean farmers and loggers burned and cut down a near-record area of the Amazon rainforest last year. Photograph: Dado Galdier / AP]
To the European eye, accustomed to square hedgerows and neatly tilled arable land, the countryside of eastern Paraguay is unexceptional, almost pretty. The rolling hills spread out to the far distance. The sky is vast, the horizon broken only by the occasional homestead, leafy copse or bulky metal silo.
But to 47-year-old MelitÃ³n RamÃrez, this is no paradise. It's a wasteland. Juddering down a farm track in a muddy Jeep, he points to a wide field by the road. It has been sown with soya and the green-leafed plants are sprouting. It looks like a huge bed of wild clover.
'Thirty years ago, almost all of this was woodland,' says RamÃrez, who's been a farmer in Alto ParanÃ¡ state all his life. He grew up surrounded by the Interior Atlantic Forest, listening to the sound of bare-throated bellbirds and saffron toucanets. Before the advent of commercial farming, 85 per cent of eastern Paraguay was forest. Now, with roughly 12 per cent of it still standing, silence fills the air.
'There used to be 2,000 families living here. Now there are only 30, if that,' he continues.
The story of RamÃrez's home village of Minga PorÃ¡ is familiar in South America. It is a story that starts on the dinner tables of the UK and other rich nations, where a hunger for meat and dairy products fuels an ever-rising demand for the industrial farming of animals using high-protein feed. At the bottom of this food chain is the soya plant. Millions of hectares of intensively cultivated soya are gnawing at tropical forests and savannah - displacing farmers and communities, leading to poverty, ill-health and even violence, ruining habitats and exacerbating global warming.
A report by campaign group Friends of the Earth is to be published on Tuesday to focus the attention of UK consumers and the government on the scale of this destruction. It will detail for the first time the cutting, burning and spraying that occurs as a consequence. The report, What's Feeding our Food?, will start a campaign urging the government to take action, ending subsidies and other policies that encourage intensive farming and making sure public money spent on food is not propping up damaging practices.
Across the main soya-producing countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, an area the size of California has been cleared for this one crop, which is exported around the world, mainly to the European Union and China. As the third biggest customer in the European Union, the UK required nearly 1.2m hectares - an area the size of Devon and Cornwall - to generate the 1.7m tonnes of soya beans and 652,000 tonnes of crushed soya meal imported in the most recent year for which figures are available, 2006-7. That was most of the soya used by UK farmers producing 850 million broiler chickens, 10 billion eggs, 10 million turkeys, 4.9 million pigs and 10 million cattle for dairy and beef. Some of this food is exported, but imports, mostly from the EU, are also reared using soya feed, says the report.
'Even though bacon, burgers, milk and cheese may be produced in the UK, most will have come from animals fed on crops grown on the other side of the world,' it says. Nor is the pace of change slackening: this year official estimates judge that soya production will increase in all three major producers. Although demand for meat is largely flat in the UK, it is growing in developing countries.
Attracted by generous offers from Brazilian-born soya growers, RamÃrez's neighbours began selling their plots. Soon herbicides began to contaminate the land and water supplies. His own crops began to fail. Worried the chemicals would harm his family, six years ago RamÃrez decided to leave.
The destruction wreaked by soya has forced about 90,000 families in the neighbouring state of CaaguazÃº to leave their homes since the mid-Nineties, according to Javiera Rulli, a biologist for AsunciÃ³n-based research group BASE, and the editor of a book on soya's expansion in South America. 'The expansion of GM soya is leading to social conflict and mass migration,' she says.
Some problems are easy to measure, particularly the damage to the Amazon and Atlantic forests and the Cerrado savannah. Only two per cent of Paraguay's tropical and subtropical Atlantic forest is left, according to the report - the same proportion of 16th-century woodland remaining in the UK.
Others problems are anecdotal, but the report cites dozens of incidents and statistics to build up a picture of the complex chain of social problems that can be traced back to the growth of the soya farms. Then there are the health impacts of spraying fertilisers and pesticides.
In Paraguay, in the tiny rural hamlet of San Isidro, resident Cipriano Vega says there has been a surge in diseases that were almost unknown in the community previously. Diarrhoea, rashes, headaches, allergies, chest infections and epilepsy are all commonplace now, he alleges.
The community has asked the local government to test the water supply, but to no avail. Without such data, Vega admits that it is difficult to prove a link to the herbicides. But he is in little doubt. 'The year before last, two kids were born without the ability to move their arms or legs, and two people recently died of brain haemorrhages,' he says.
Although it is hard to prove any one person or village has been poisoned by the farming chemicals, the World Health Organisation estimates that, excluding suicide, 355,000 people a year are poisoned by chemicals, and agrochemicals are a major contributor, particularly pesticides. 'Acute exposure can lead to death or serious illness,' particularly when people live close to where chemicals are used, adds the WHO briefing on toxic hazards.
Not everybody accepts, however, that the problems of soya production are as widespread as campaigners claim.
Robert Newbery, the National Farmers Union's chief poultry adviser, said soya products for animals were only part of a global industry that also produced soya oil for processed food, and most crops were planted on existing agricultural land. Newbery said the NFU would support action to tackle wrongdoing by soya farmers, but said they were confident 'the majority is grown ethically'.
Bunge, which with Cargill is one of the biggest soya production companies in the region, also said it had been working for many years, especially in Brazil, to make the industry more sustainable, backing a moratorium on buying soya from newly deforested parts of the Amazon, and working with the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment on promoting best practices among producers. 'A lot has been done, but there is always more to do,' said a spokesman.
MelitÃ³n RamÃrez now lives in the optimistically named El Triunfo (The Triumph), a rural settlement off the trunk road heading west from Ciudad del Este. He and his fellow subsistence farmers hope to prevent soya's continual encroachment by joining the ownership of their lands together so the soya farmers can't pick them off one by one.
Back in the UK, FoE is calling for the government to axe subsidies that encourage intensive livestock production, lobby the EU to change trade policies and international aid that bolster the industry, and ensure that the £2.2bn a year spent on food by public bodies such as schools and hospitals does not buy products from intensive soya-fed animals.
'Most people don't realise that there's a hidden chain of events linking the meat and dairy they buy to factory farming and to climate change, deforestation and loss of livelihoods in developing countries,' said Clare Oxborrow, FoE's senior food campaigner. 'The government must revolutionise the way that meat and dairy is produced in this country to urgently tackle these impacts while supporting sustainable UK livestock farming.'
A versatile crop
”¢ Cultivated for thousands of years in China, soya was considered one of five holy crops, along with rice, wheat, barley and millet.
”¢ The beans can be eaten as sprouts, milk, tofu, tempeh, sauce or miso.
”¢ Shoyu is the dark brown liquid produced by fermenting soya beans.
”¢ According to a report in the journal Biology of Reproduction in 2004, soya may delay baldness and help to prevent prostate cancer.
”¢ A two-year study by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and Copenhagen University Hospital found that soy milk reduces bone loss in post-menopausal women.
”¢ Candles made from soya burn for longer than ones made from pure wax.
”¢ Compounds in soya known as phyto-oestrogens or plant oestrogens mimic the female hormone oestrogen, so a woman drinking two glasses of soya milk a day will alter the timing of her menstrual cycle.