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Cerrado in crisis: One Brazilian farm family commits to sustainable soy

  • Brazil’s Cerrado is one of the most biodiverse tropical savannas on the planet, with aquifers and rivers vital to Brazil’s urban water supply. But more than half the biome’s 2 million square kilometers have been cleared, and the rest is vanishing fast.
  • The Cerrado today serves a soaring global demand for soy, used as animal feed for livestock in Brazil, the European Union, United Kingdom and elsewhere.
  • The Bergamaschi family soy plantation is different from most. The family has conserved 8% of its land above the 20% required by Brazil’s Forest Code. It is also fully committed to growing soy sustainably, and has received Roundtable for Responsible Soy certification — a designation that assures zero deforestation.
  • But few Cerrado growers are following suit, largely due to economics. For now the EU market for certified soy is very small. Without consumer demand, and a strong commitment from government, soy certification will likely lag in the Cerrado. However, signs are that the EU could soon act to ban “imported deforestation.”
Jarbas Bergamaschi and his wife Graziela. The family runs a 3,000 hectare farm in the Cerrado — the heart of Brazil’s “last agricultural frontier.” Image by Sarah Sax / Mongabay.

A Mongabay team, Sarah Sax and Maurício Angelo, recently traveled to the Brazilian Cerrado to report on the impacts of booming agribusiness on the savanna environment and on the traditional people living there. This is the third story in a series telling what they found there.

LUIS EDUARDO MAGALHÃES, Bahia, Brazil — Jarbas Bergamaschi looks to be the epitome of a Brazilian soy farmer. Standing over 6 feet tall on his 3,245 hectare (8,020 acre) farm in the middle of Brazil’s most rapidly expanding soy frontier, he strikes an impressive figure. However, his views regarding sustainable soy make him a man apart — for now.

“Our family is a family of farmers,” the 43-year-old proclaims proudly. “My mother and my father both. I have been working in agriculture since I was a small boy, delivering milk and vegetables. My parents came here because the land was cheaper, when I was 11 years old.”

Like many Brazilian farmers that arrived decades ago in the northern part of the Cerrado biome, the Bergamaschi family originally came from a small town in Brazil’s South, seeking opportunity. Moving to Bahia state in 1988, they worked hard to “open” the Cerrado, the dry, tropical savanna, which in Portuguese translates as “closed.”

In fact, what is “open” or “closed” here depends on your viewpoint. The savanna may look open to a casual visitor, with its sweeping vistas unobscured by a mix of scrubby trees, woody bushes and tall grass. But the Cerrado scrubland remained “closed” to large-scale cultivation through three quarters of the 20th Century, until farmers were equipped with industrial-strength tools to remove the biome’s deep-rooted native vegetation and were provided with tropically acclimated seeds.

A typical Cerrado landscape. While the above-ground native vegetation is not as impressive as the Amazon rainforest with its giant trees, the tropical savanna is biodiverse and stores vast amounts of carbon in its root systems. Image by Flávia Milhorance / Mongabay.

Soy conquers the upside-down forest

Some scientists call these dry scrublands an “upside-down forest,” referencing the massive entangled root systems that store the equivalent of 13.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide, around 1.5 times the amount of carbon emissions released globally in 2014 — greenhouse gas that would otherwise contribute to increasing climate change.

However, most of today’s soy farmers see little value in the savanna’s native vegetation, or even in the region’s carbon storage capabilities. They readily rip out the roots of the upside-down forest using tractors and heavy chains. The soy fields they then plant provide high-protein feed to cattle, pigs and chickens not just in Brazil, but in China, the EU and UK.

Serving that rising global demand for animal feed has spurred unprecedented agribusiness development in the Cerrado — and unprecedented deforestation. More than half the biome’s 2 million square kilometers (772, 204 square miles) have been cleared, and the rest is vanishing fast.

The semi-arid scrublands hide something else. Made up of almost 500 unique ecosystems, the biome is home to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Of the 11,000 plant species found here, almost half live nowhere else on Earth. Surprisingly, the dry Cerrado is also underlain by great aquifers, and is the source of half of all of Brazil’s major rivers.

Soy fields like this one cover much of the Cerrado, supplying livestock feed to cattle in the European Union and elsewhere. Image by Alicia Prager /Mongabay.

The Cerrado remained largely untouched by industrial agribusiness until the 1970s. That’s when the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMPRABA) figured out how to amend the acidic soils and developed a soybean that could thrive in the tropical Brazilian climate.

Over the last two decades, highly mechanized soy production moved steadily north and east, eating up savanna native vegetation and encroaching on traditional communities and sustainable livelihoods.

Today the industry has even renamed the region where soy is king: a grouping of 337 municipalities in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia — dubbed Matopiba.

Matopiba soy exports more than doubled from 3.5 to 7.1 million tons between 2010 and 2015. Almost half of that soy came from just six municipalities in Western Bahia, including the municipality in which Jarbas has his plantation.

The gate of the Bergamaschi farm with an RTRS soy certification sign. 2,000 hectares of soy crop is certified while 1,000 hectares of native vegetation is conserved. Image by Sarah Sax / Mongabay.

The Bergamaschi difference

To reach the Bergamaschi farm, we drove half an hour west of Luis Eduardo Magalhães. Originally an outpost for trappers who hunted rhea, Brazil’s large, flightless bird, the municipality’s population today has soared to 87,000 — largely thanks to the kingdom of soy. Welcomed onto the farm, we arrived at an office encircled by a wall of trees — protection from pesticide drift and offering shade from tree-bare fields.

The difference between Jarbas and his fellow soy producers became evident as we surveyed office shelves including books on accounting and business, but also covering organic agriculture, sustainable farming and soy certification. The coffee Jarbas served piping hot with fresh pão de queijo, was, like the sugar we spooned into it, organic.

The family, he tells us, is doing more than its fair share to conserve the native savanna. Brazil’s Forest Code requires Cerrado property owners to conserve 20% of their lands as Legal Reserves, with undisturbed native vegetation. But the Bergamaschi family voluntarily conserves an additional 8% above what is required. The almost 1,000 conserved hectares (2,471 acres), together with their neighbors’ Legal Reserves, form an ecological corridor that stretches along the river running through the properties.

“The [wild] animals have the water, they keep walking freely in the Cerrado, and from time to time we see the animals up here in the productive area,” Jarbas says, listing them: “Deer, anteater, wolf, jaguar, siriema [the South American equivalent of the African secretary bird], toucan, and many other types of birds.”

Jarbas’s farm has many of the existing national certifications for sustainable soy production, such as Soja Plus, a program run by the Brazilian oilseed industry “Getting the Roundtable for Responsible Soy [RTRS] certification was a natural next step,” he adds.

The Roundtable for Responsible Soy is an international certification scheme for soybeans; RTRS verifies that the beans are produced on land that complies with federal legal requirements, and originates from a process that produces zero deforestation, is environmentally correct, socially adequate and economically viable.

Jarbas thinks that many of his neighbors would be eligible — he sees RTRS certification as a logical extension for any farmer who follows Brazil’s Forest Code faithfully — however, the market for sustainable soy is lacking, and the extra time and resources it takes to verify and report may not seem worth it to many farmers.

“Certification encourages employees to stay and get more motivated, and it helps when you want to get a loan from lending organization,” Jarbas says. “But does it economically make a difference? It’s pretty small [at present].”

This view of the Cerrado’s soy kingdom virtually lacks native vegetation. More than half the savanna has been lost to cattle ranching, soy and other crops. Rapid action is needed to conserve the remainder. Image by Sarah Sax / Mongabay.

Lack of EU consumer demand inhibits certification

Oswaldo Carvahlo, a research associate at the Earth Innovation Institute, and one of the founders of the Roundtable for Responsible Soy, agrees with Jarbas; he too sees the lack of a sustainable soy market as one of the biggest obstacles for getting more farmers certified.

“The RTRS process was created basically for the European market, but the demand hasn’t grown among EU consumers,” he told Mongabay. “Now, there are a lot of [Cerrado] farmers ready to be certified, but [they] are just waiting for the demand for soy certification to grow.” The year 2017 saw a 30 percent increase in RTRS certification among farmers worldwide, but international demand for certification increased only by 8 percent. But those trends might be changing. In 2018, international sales of RTRS certified soy grew 28%, and in 2019 they grew by 41%.”

Globally, 337 million tons of soybeans were produced in 2017/18 according to the US Department of Agriculture, of which almost 300 million was used for animal feed. But only around 2 percent of all soybeans are certified sustainable. In 2018, only 2.8 million tons of RTRS soybeans were traded globally.

A demand for soy certification in the EU is critical, as the European Union currently provides one of the largest markets for Brazilian soy, consuming almost every fifth soybean produced by the South American nation, according to FERN, a UK-based forest advocacy group. But just 13 percent of global soy imports to the EU can be considered “deforestation free,” according to the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH). That’s one of the lowest rates for any commodity being shipped to the EU. Global Palm oil imports to the EU, in comparison, are almost 75 percent certified sustainable.

The reason: Other commodities, like coffee and chocolate, are very visible on grocery store shelves; consumers can easily identify them and so are willing to pay a premium for sustainable certification. But soy is different, largely because it is invisible. Most meat-eaters — even when feasting on locally raised premium priced EU pork, chicken or beef — have no idea that the soy on which these animals are fattened often comes from Brazil, and that it often causes major deforestation in the Cerrado, and to a lesser degree, the Amazon.

Consumer education could offer a solution to the visibility problem. The case of palm oil explains why: though contained in a variety of products, and also often invisible, many shoppers today know that oil palm production contributes significantly to tropical deforestation, environmental degradation and climate change. Informational PR, along with labeling, has resulted in a strong palm oil certification program, and in consumers being willing to pay extra for sustainable palm oil.

Soy fields and adjacent forest patches. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

RTRS and the Cerrado Manifesto

While several other certification and labeling organizations are active internationally, the RTRS brands itself as the only zero deforestation certification. That’s a distinction that could make RTRS key to delivering on the promise of the Cerrado Manifesto. Announced in September 2017, the Manifesto is a pledge signed by a range of Brazilian organizations and international retailers, including WWF-Brazil, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), McDonald’s, and Marks & Spencer promising to eliminate Cerrado deforestation from soy supply chains.

The Manifesto is aimed at ending native vegetation conversion in the Cerrado by implementing a supply chain deforestation ban similar to the Amazon Soy Moratorium, which brought commodities traders, retailers, and NGOs together to commit voluntarily to not sourcing soy from farms actively deforesting after 2008.

Achieving a similar agreement in the Cerrado is difficult. For one, traders, including Cargill, are vital to a Cerrado agreement, but have actively stonewalled against a moratorium. Second, much of the deforestation in the Cerrado is legal. In comparison to the Amazon, where farmers are legally required to conserve 80 percent of their land, farmers only need to conserve 20 percent of their land in the Cerrado, or 35 percent in the Cerrado-Amazon transition zone. Getting them to conserve more would likely require federal incentives.

AIBA, the Association of Bahian Farmers, represents 1,300 rural producers in Western Bahia and is firm on this point: “We prioritize abiding by the Forest Code. The Forest Code, if changed, we would follow, ” says Luiz Schalke, an AIBA representative. “We just do not have the obligation to tell the farmer to make improvements just out of good conscience, without paying them for doing more than they need to.”

A representative of indigenous peoples in Brazil speaks to a large group of EU policymakers about the need to ensure that  agricultural commodities are not destroying indigenous lands or causing deforestation. Image courtesy of FERN.

EU “imported deforestation” legislation a way forward

While the RTRS sees Bergamashi’s farm as a step in the right direction, experts say that certification only goes a small way toward saving the Cerrado.

“Certification is not the holy grail, it is a business model for soy suppliers,”  Yves Tohermes, a feed specialist at the German Organization for Animal Feed stated last year. “For the producers, certified soy is only feasible if the consumer wants to pay for it.”

EU policymakers are now increasingly looking at new regulations that would ban “imported deforestation” from agricultural commodities supply chains. An EU communication released last July signaled a commitment to increase “supply chain transparency and minimize the risk of deforestation and forest degradation associated with commodity imports in the EU.” According to organizations that have been advocating for such rules for many years, regulation is now more likely than ever.

Soy accounts for almost half of the EU’s imported deforestation from agricultural and livestock commodities, according to a report by Climate Focus. Now, industries dependent on those commodities, like the EU feed industry, are taking note.

“We cannot hide from the fact that soy is earmarked as a ‘forest risk commodity,’” wrote Nick Major, the president of the European Feed Manufacturers Federation (FEFAC) in a memo outlining its organizational vision for 2030. “It is time to stop seeing the work on sustainability as an add-on module going beyond EU legal requirements, given that legislation on all environmental elements of feed production could be introduced if the political desire is there.”

According to Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy & Advocacy for Global Witness, that political desire might have finally arrived. In November, over a hundred representatives from the European Parliament, the private sector, NGOs and indigenous groups gathered in Brussels for an event titled: “Tackling the global deforestation crisis: the urgent need for EU regulation of supply chains,” and sponsored by the European Parliament Responsible Business Conduct Working Group.

“The room was packed,” Blackman told Mongabay. “I’ve spoken at previous events like this, and it has never been this big. I’ve never seen such an interest in policymakers on deforestation.”

The two hours of talks included speakers Sônia Guajajara, leader of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, representatives of LUSH, the cosmetics retailer; Mars, the transnational confectionery manufacturer; plus speakers from FERN and Global Witness.

”I think what we are seeing now is that the political will is there,” Blackman says. “In the last EU Commission, politicians were looking to avoid additional [regulatory] burden on companies, but I think because of increased awareness about Amazon fires and environmental devastation linked to agricultural commodities, the commission is saying this isn’t enough.”

This seeming sea change also mirrors shifting public attitude in much of the EU as well. A recent poll commissioned by the Environmental Investigation Agency, FERN, Greenpeace and WWF, found that 87% of Europeans favor legislative action to prevent deforestation.

That move wouldn’t end the Cerrado’s problems: illegal land grabbing, decreased rainfall due to climate change, and rapid approval of numerous toxic pesticides by the Bolsonaro administration, are just some of the other difficulties that need to be addressed.

But, when it comes to limiting the deforestation caused by EU soy consumption, says Blackmann, “It feels to me like one of those moments where you see a shift. Things we were advocating for a few years ago that seemed unfeasible are now on the table. Frankly,” she adds, “if politicians don’t act now, it’s a missed opportunity.”

(Mauricio Angelo contributed additional reporting to this story.)

Banner image caption: A grain silo and soy field close to the entrance of Jarbas Bergamaschi’s farm. Image by Sarah Sax.

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