The Global Soya Bean Problem According to Lester Brown

The global demand for soya beans has increased 16-fold in the past few  decades. The largest demand originates from China, which predominantly uses soya to feed pigs, poultry and farmed fish. This may well cause problems according to environmentalist Lester Brown

Lester Brown, who has being named  as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” by the Washington Post,  started his career as a farmer growing tomatoes in New Jersey.  He joined  the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Service as an international analyst in 1959, before graduating in Agricultural Economics.  In 2001 he founded  the Earth Policy Institute , an organisation that aims for an environmentally sustainable economy. Brown has been monitoring the effects of unsustainable development and forecasting their possible consequences. He is now, and has been,  warning the world about China’s (soya) consumption, believing that it’s rising demand will bring about consequences that will be felt all over the world.

So why doesn’t China produce more soya itself? The answer lies in 1995, when the Chinese government decided, with the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 in the back of their heads, to focus on being self-sufficient in producing grain.  They dreaded having to be dependent on the rest of the world for their grain supplies once more.  As a result, grain production in China became heavily subsidised, which was detrimental to the country’s soya production. In order to meet demand, China is now forced to import large quantities of the bean. The effects are beginning to make themselves felt on western agricultural soils.

Momentarily the U.S. has more land where soya beans are being grown, than grain. In Brazil, the land in soya beans exceeds that of all grains combined. Argentina’s soya bean area is now close to double that of all grains combined, putting the country dangerously close to becoming a soybean monoculture.  Nearly 60% of all soya beans entering the international market today go to China, making the country the world’s largest importer of soya beans by far. China’s soya demand has risen greatly in the past decades.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the soya bean, domesticated in China some 3,000 years ago, joined wheat, rice, and corn as one of the world’s four leading crops.  Animal nutritionists had discovered that combining one part soya bean meal with four parts grain would sharply boost the efficiency with which livestock and poultry converted grain into animal protein. Seeing that half of the worlds’ pig population can be found in China and together with the countries fast-growing poultry industry and large quantities of farmed fish in the country demand for the bean went up. To illustrate; in 1995, China was producing 14 million tons of soya beans and  consuming 14 million tons. In 2011, it was still producing 14 million tons of soya beans but now consuming 70 million tons, meaning that 56 million tons had to be imported.

Since the mid-20th century the yield of grain production has risen in ratio to land use, whereas soya beans still require vast amounts of land.  Grain yield has tripled per acre, the 16-fold increase in the global soybean harvest has come largely from expanding the amount of crop lands. While these area have been expanded nearly sevenfold, the yield has scarcely doubled. This is where the problem lies.

Soya bean

Do we have any land left to plant the soya beans which are so in demand? There is no available cropland left in the United States. Making room for soya beans can only been done by shifting land from other crops, such as corn or wheat. In other countries, like Brazil, the result has been that the Amazon Basin and the cerrado (a vast tropical savannah) are being traded in for soya bean cropland. 

To save the Amazon rainforest, which destruction will cause even more environmental problems down the line, we have to find a way to reduce the demand for soya beans. One way to do it, according to Brown, would be to stabilize the world population, another would be for us all to eat less meat (and not use soya as a substitute, of course). Americans still eat more meat than anyone else in the world, but consumption is, luckily, declining now according to recent publications.




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