Soybean Demand and Amazon Rainforest Destruction

The soybean is everywhere, yet it is virtually invisible, embedded in livestock and poultry products. A glaring, dangerous effect of trying to satisfy the global demand for soybeans, however, is deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

| January 5, 2010

Farmers in eastern China domesticated the soybean some 3,000 years ago. In 1765, the first soybeans were planted in North America. Today the soybean occupies more U.S. cropland than wheat does. And in Brazil, where it spread even more rapidly, the soybean is invading the Amazon rainforest.

For close to two centuries after its introduction in the United States, the soybean languished as a curiosity crop. Then, during the 1950s, as Europe and Japan recovered from the war and as economic growth gathered momentum in the United States, the demand for meat, milk and eggs climbed. But with little new grassland to support the expanding beef and dairy herds, farmers turned to grain to produce not only more beef and milk but also more pork, poultry and eggs. World consumption of meat at 44 million tons in 1950 had already started the climb that would take it to 280 million tons in 2009, a sixfold rise.

This rise was partly dependent on the discovery by animal nutritionists that combining one part soybean meal with four parts grain would dramatically boost the efficiency with which livestock and poultry converted grain into animal protein. This generated a fast-growing market for soybeans from the mid-20th century onward. It was the soybean’s ticket to agricultural prominence, enabling soybeans to join wheat, rice and corn as one of the world’s leading crops.

U.S. production of the soybean exploded after World War II. By 1960 it was close to triple that in China. By 1970 the United States was producing three-fourths of the world’s soybeans and accounting for virtually all exports. And by 1995 the fast-expanding U.S. land area planted to soybeans had eclipsed that in wheat.

When world grain and soybean prices climbed in the mid-1970s, the United States, in an effort to curb domestic food price inflation, embargoed soybean exports. Japan, then the world’s leading importer, was soon looking for another supplier. And Brazil was looking for new crops to export. The rest is history. In 2009, the area in Brazil planted to soybeans exceeded that in all grains combined.

At about the same time, the soybean gained a foothold in Argentina, where it staged the most spectacular takeover of all. Today more than twice as much land in Argentina produces soybeans as produces grain. Rarely does a single crop so dominate a country’s agriculture as the soybean does Argentina’s. Together, the United States, Brazil and Argentina produce easily four-fifths of the world’s soybean crop and account for 90 percent of the exports.

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