Two decades of growth in the global market for soya has already led to large-scale deforestation in the Amazon.
The intensifying trade war between the planet’s two greatest economic powerhouses may have an unlikely victim: forests in the Amazon.
Last year the United States slapped tariffs on goods imported from China, whereupon China retaliated by imposing its own tariffs on goods imported from the U.S. This caused American soybean exports to China to plummet. Experts fear that China’s bid to make up for those losses by sourcing soybeans from elsewhere could cause Brazil to convert vast tracts of land in the Amazon into new agricultural land.
“We forecast that a surge of tropical deforestation could occur as a result of the fresh demand being placed on China’s other major suppliers to provide up to 37.6 million tonnes of the crop (that is how much China imported from the United States in 2016),” a team of experts write in a new paper published in the journal Nature.
“Already, two decades of growth in the global market for soya has led to large-scale deforestation in the Amazon rainforest,” they explain. “Massive deforestation of the Amazon over what’s already happening will have profound impacts on global attempts to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity.”
Soya is a primary source of animal feed because it contains large amounts of protein and fat. China is heavily dependent on it and in the past two decades Chinese imports of soya have ballooned by 20 times. That is why unless the United States reverses course on newly imposed tariffs, soybean cultivation in the Amazon could lead to the loss of 32 million acres of forest in the Amazon in coming decades, according to the researchers.
“China could increase its own production of soya beans,” they say. “But it would have to triple it to make up the shortfall. That would require around 13 million hectares of land — an area the size of Greece, [which] seems unlikely given the limited fertile land now available for crops.”
Instead, China, which is facing a choice in the matter, could decide to exploit the Amazon’s remaining rainforests thanks to its economic clout. The result would be that vast areas of forest would be cleared for soybean cultivation in the Amazon, which would have devastating consequences for biodiversity.
“It’s quite striking. This is the worst-case scenario,” says Richard Fuchs, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, in Karlsruhe, Germany, which was behind the paper. “But we know that there are only a few players out there, the important (soya bean) producers are the US, Brazil and Argentina.”