The Hidden Cost of Our Taste for Meat
December 7, 2008
con'tThe destruction wreaked by soya has forced about 90,000 families in the neighbouring state of Caaguazú to leave their homes since the mid-Nineties, according to Javiera Rulli, a biologist for Asunción-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.
Melitón Ramírez 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.
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