Brazil is expected to surpass the United States as the world's biggest soy producer by the end of 2013. Though soy production no longer threatens the Amazon rainforest, environmentalists see cause for concern.
Soy is the main crop grown in Brazil, and one of the country's biggest export hits. Half of the harvest is processed domestically, to become oil or soy flour. The other half is exported, mainly to China.
Brazil's central-eastern region is the country's granary, and that is where agricultural productivity is about to make the country the world's leading soy producer. By the end of 2013, Brazil will head the list of global soy producers, replacing the United States.
The frenzy for soy has dramatically changed the landscape of the region. In 1960, the government ordered the local forests be clearcut to make way for soy crops. Afterwards, people were forcibly relocated to the area. The government threatened farmers they would dispossess them of their land if they did not move. Decades later, cities were built in the vast areas that had been cleared. By then, the original vegetation of the region had vanished.
US production down
Some 83 billion tons of soybeans are expected to be harvested in Brazil this year - an increase of 25 percent over last year's harvest. The central-eastern part of Brazil will account for more than 60 percent of the yield. According to FAO projections, the USA will produce a mere 78 billion tons this year - far below the previously forecast 87 billion tons.
While North American soy production has been suffering from the impact of drought in recent months, the Brazilian success is due to state-of-the-art technology and the renewed cultivation of unused pastures.
In the past, huge areas of forest were cut down to make way for arable land. Now, things have changed, according to the secretary for agricultural policy at the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry, Neri Geller.
"There will be no more cutting down of forests," he told DW.
More cultivation, less clearcutting
In view of the massive loss of forest to agriculture in previous decades, it's hard to believe that Brazil's soy crops are expanding at the same time as clearcutting is being reduced.
Currently, soybeans are being grown on 27 million hectares of Brazilian soil - a nine percent increase over last year. At the same time, there's significantly less clearcutting in the Amazon rainforest; it fell by 27 percent in 2012.
A major factor in this development is the so-called soybean moratorium. In 2006, in the wake of a Greenpeace campaign, Brazilian soy producers, the government and concerned organizations agreed on a moratorium: Companies would no longer buy any soy grown on newly deforested lands in the Amazon rainforest.
The latest figures indicate the moratorium has been effective: It's estimated that only 0.4 percent of soybeans are now grown on land that was recently cleared.
High tech in the countryside
Romulo Batista of Greenpeace Brazil says there are additional reasons for this change, such as the government use of a satellite system for strict monitoring. "Also, consumers' behavior has changed," he says. "Many simply are not interested anymore in buying products that lead to deforestation."
The soybean moratorium has had another positive effect: Degraded pastures can now be reused. "These are pastures that had been used for grazing for 20 or 30 years and are no longer usable for that purpose," says Endrigo Dalcin, director of the Brazilian soybean association Aprosoja. "Now soybeans are being cultivated there."
In the low season, after crops have been harvested, the land can be used as pasture for cattle for a few months. This combination of crop cultivation and animal husbandry is seen as a significant breakthrough in Brazil.
State-of-the-art technology guarantees high productivity even on degraded soils. The farming machinery is steered via GPS and autopilots. These modern devices can detect which parts of soil need more fertilizer than others. This innovation saves money and is also subsidized by the government: Special financing options enable even small farmers to buy special equipment.
"This technology helps to prepare the soil in a way that allows cattle to graze on the land later," says Neri Geller of the Agriculture Ministry.
Expansion and danger
An estimated 60 million hectares of degraded soil currently remains abandoned, but could be re-cultivated. "Or to put it differently, it is no longer necessary to clear forests," says Peter Thoenes of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
He thinks this idle land has huge potential. "We expect production to be expanded," he says. "No other major producer in the world, not even the USA, has this kind of potential to expand. There, all the land is already being used."
Though Brazil's soy industry no longer contributes massively to the deforestation of rainforests, increased soy cultivation has other negative effects. The large-scale use of pesticides and genetically modified plants are the biggest problems in monocultures. GM soybeans have been legal in Brazil since 2005, and it's estimated they make up some 75 percent of production now.
"The way that soybeans are produced must be reconsidered to be able to guarantee a sustainable use of soil, to maintain biodiversity in the forests and fields, which are being contaminated by pesticides, and also to ensure the genetic diversity of grains," says Greenpeace's Romulo Batista. After all, in addition to its leading role in soy production, Brazil is also the world's leading user of pesticides.
"So far, there is no study that indicates it's safe to use pesticides," Batista says. "Should transgenic seed in the future be the only seed that's being sold, and then be affected by an incurable pest, it would pose a huge problem."