In the time it takes to read this entire article, an area of Brazil's Amazon rainforest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed, much of it for soybean cultivation.
Today, industrial-scale soybean producers are joining loggers and cattle ranchers in speeding up destruction and further fragmenting the great Brazilian wilderness. Between the years 2000 and 2005, Brazil lost more than 50,000 square miles of rainforest—a large portion of that for soybean farming.
Soybean production in the Brazilian Amazon soared after heat-tolerant varieties were introduced in 1997. In just ten years, exports of soybeans grown in the Amazon Basin have reached 42 million tons a year. Total annual soybean production in Brazil today is about 85 million tons, and Brazil will soon surpass the United States as the world's leader in soybean production.
Brazil holds about 30 percent of the Earth's remaining tropical rainforest. The Amazon Basin produces roughly 20 percent of the Earth's oxygen, creates much of its own rainfall, and harbors hundreds of thousands of species, many yet to be discovered. The Brazilian rainforest is the world's most biologically diverse habitat.
Close to 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been cut down. At the current rate of clearing, scientists predict that 40 percent of the Amazon will be destroyed and a further 20 percent degraded within two decades. If that happens, the forest's ecology will begin to unravel. Intact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the moisture it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die, the fragile rainforest soils blow away, and the forest becomes a desert. Currently trees are being wantonly burned to create open land for soybean cultivation. Consequently, Brazil has become one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The decimation of the Amazon is, for the most part, done legally. Even the governor of the state of Mato Gross, on the edge of the Amazon Basin, is a part of it. Governor Blairo Maggi is the world's largest single soybean producer, growing 350,000 acres. That's about 547 square miles of Amazon rainforest that have been leveled for soybean production! He is just one of many industrial-sized soybean operations in the area. In 2005, Greenpeace awarded Maggi the Golden Chain Saw award for his role in leveling the rainforest.
But, clearing and tilling the land for soybean production is only part of the problem. Soybean cultivation destroys habitat for wildlife including endangered or unknown species, and increases greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. Soybeans need large amounts of acid-neutralizing lime, as well as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, all of which are creating an environmental hazard. Toxic chemicals contaminate the forest, poison rivers, and destroy wildlife. And, in undeveloped countries, soy production disrupts the life of indigenous tribes who depend on the forest for food and shelter, replaces traditional crops, and transfers the value-added from processing from the local population to multinational corporations.
The environmental destruction caused by soybean farming isn't limited to the Amazon; it occurs throughout the world wherever soybeans are produced. In the U.S. alone, over 80 million acres of land are covered in soybeans. That's hundreds of thousands of acres of deforestation, habitat destruction, over-cultivation and destruction of soils, and billions of tons of toxic chemicals spewed into the environment year after year, contaminating our soils, water, and destroying wildlife and human health. And new, genetically modified soy was specifically developed to withstand the toxins so farmers could spray even more pesticides on them without diminishing yields.
Over 80% of all soybeans grown in the U.S. (and two-thirds worldwide) are genetically-modified to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, which is usually sold under the trade name Roundup. Because so much Roundup is used on these crops, the residue levels in the harvested crops greatly exceed what until very recently was the allowable legal limit. For the technology to be commercially viable, the FDA had to triple the limit on residues of glyphosate that can remain on the crop. Many scientists have protested that permitting increased residues shows that corporate interests are given higher priority than public safety at the FDA, but the increased levels have remained in force.
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