The Long Read – Soya and the Cerrado

Soya and it’s relationship to Brazil’s Cerrado Destruction 

A report by Sally Campbell

Rachel Carson in 1962 in Silent Spring wrote… “The history of life on earth has become the history of interactions between living things and their surroundings…Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species. man.. acquired sufficient power to alter the nature of his world”. Welcome to the Anthropocene !

What is SOYA?

  • From 2012 to 2020, the largest soybean producing countries were the US, Brazil, Argentina, China, Paraguay, India, and Canada, in that order. But in May 2020 Brazil surpassed the USA as the largest producer of soybeans worldwide producing 124 million metric tons.
  • China is one of the top global producers of soybeans, but this country largely consumes the product within its own borders, and is also one of the largest importers of soybeans.
  • Brazil’s soybean production is significant, but it is contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Recently, soya production in the Cerrado region of Brazil is driving an additional environmental disaster.
  • The difference between the soya bean and grain (wheat, barley, rice, oats) is it is high in protein and hence its value as a foodstuff.

How is soya used?

More than 60% of all processed food in Britain today contains soya in some form, according to food industry estimates. It is in breakfast cereals, cereal bars and biscuits, cheeses, cakes, dairy desserts, gravies, noodles, pastries, soups, sausage casings, sauces and sandwich spreads. Soya, crushed, separated and refined into its different components, can appear on food labels as soya flour, hydrolysed vegetable protein, soy protein isolate, protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein, vegetable oil (simple, fully, or partially hydrogenated), plant sterols, or the emulsifier lecithin. Its many guises hint at its value to manufacturers.

Soya increases the protein content of processed meat products. It replaces them altogether in vegetarian foods. It stops industrial breads shrinking. It makes cakes retain their moisture content. It helps manufacturers mix water into oil as an emulsion. Hydrogenated, its oil is used to deep-fry fast food.

Soya is also in cat food and dog food. But above all it is used in agricultural feeds for intensive chicken, beef, dairy, pig and in salmon fish farming. Soya protein – which accounts for 35% of the raw bean – is what has made the global factory farming of livestock for cheap meat and cheap farmed salmon a possibility. Soya oil – high in omega 6 fatty acids and 18% of the whole bean – has meanwhile driven the post-war explosion in snack foods around the world. Crisps, confectionery, deep-fried take-aways, ready meals, ice-creams, mayonnaise and margarines all make liberal use of it. Its widespread presence is one of the reasons our ingestion of omega 3 to omega 6 essential fatty acids is so out of balance in our diets, as these two oxylipins are seriously implicated in soybean oil-induced obesity, especially in cooking oil and processed foods.

As a result the demand for soya has risen. First the Amazon but now the Cerrato or central plains region of Brazil is in the front line of increasing soya production with the loss of biodiversity and whole ecosystems.

world wide soya bean production table

Commodity traders CARGILL and their impact on the world

Exclusive figures obtained from Aidenvironment, a non-profit research consultancy, reveal 800 square km of deforestation and more than 12,000 recorded fires since 2015 on land used or owned by a handful of Cargill’s soya suppliers in the Cerrado. Fires are often set to clear woodland and aid agricultural expansion. Footage obtained in the investigation shows huge fires burning on a farm belonging to one of Cargill’s suppliers in October.

So who/what is Cargill?

When it comes to explaining the impact of America’s second biggest private company on your life, no one puts it better than the company itself. “We are the flour in your bread,” says one of Cargill’s corporate brochures, “the wheat in your noodles, the salt on your fries. We are the corn in your tortillas, the chocolate in your dessert, the sweetener in your soft drink. We are the oil in your salad dressing and the beef, pork or chicken you eat for dinner. We are the cotton in your clothing, the backing on your carpet and the fertiliser in your field.”

William Wallace Cargill founded Cargill in 1865, buying a single warehouse at the end of a new railway line in the US mid-west state of Iowa. As the great plains emerged as America’s breadbasket, he saw the potential for profit by acting as a middle man between farmers and customers, perhaps even expanding along the new railroads that were pushing into Wisconsin and Minnesota. He became a commodity trader. By 2008 the operation that started as a single frontier outpost in Iowa had become one of the largest privately held companies in the western world. Today it employs roughly 155,000 people in 70 countries. Its fleet of 570 ships move 200 million tonnes of commodities every year. A vast proportion of the world’s main agricultural commodities pass through the hands of just four international trading corporations, and Cargill is probably the largest.

Where food is sweetened, preserved, emulsified, milled or imbued with additives, there is Cargill. And it is present throughout various stages of the process, meaning it can dominate across sectors. With soya, for instance, Cargill might buy beans from Brazilian farmers, store them in a Cargill silo, take them across the ocean in a Cargill-leased ship to a Cargill feed mill, then truck the resulting animal feed to a Cargill-contracted chicken farm. Cargill is as controversial as it is enormous in its vertical integration – and yet you have almost certainly never heard of it. How, then, has this corporate juggernaut managed to keep such a low profile? And what has it been doing while the rest of us have been looking elsewhere?

In its 155 years, Cargill has insinuated itself into almost every aspect of global agribusiness, transforming the way human beings produce and consume food. Its ascent has played out to a steady backdrop of controversy, most recently the revelation that its supply chain has been linked with vast deforestation – related to extensive fires – in Brazil’s crucial Cerrado region. It is the latest in a string of scandals affecting Cargill including fatal food poisonings, deforestation, agricultural pollution, and allegations of child enslaved labour.

Over the past 50 years, agriculture has become dominated by a few major crops such as wheat, maize, and soya, said Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex. “The extent to which Cargill drove it is … difficult to ascertain since so much of their trading was opaque,” he said. “But they have made good business out of it … they played a dominant role in narrowing and homogenising plants around the world.” The industry’s shift towards cheap commodities produced on vast acreages at very high volumes was pivotal. Since the 1980s agricultural commodity traders have spread globally, pushing out family farms all over the world and benefiting Cargill above all.

“It used to be that if you were buying a chicken or some beef, you’d get it from farms within a hundred miles of your city,” said Glenn Hurowitz of the environmental organisation Mighty Earth. “Now the meat and the feed can be shipped thousands of miles, with no visibility of how it is made…Cargill has built the modern industrialised agriculture system – with all its abuses.”


The Cerrado is a crucial ecosystem. It contains 5% of the world’s plant and animal species. Though less well known than the Amazon rainforest to its north, it is an enormous natural biome, covering two million square km of land. It is a major habitat for wildlife – home to 5% of the world’s plant and animal species – and a critical region for tackling climate change. It is also a huge carbon sink, stabilising the regional climate, and is critical for eight of Brazil’s 12 river basins. And it is integral to the national energy supply: 80% of Brazil’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power plants on rivers whose sources lie in the Cerrado such as the Parana. More than half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation is already been lost. Much of what remains is dangerously fragmented

The Cerrado Region covers 20% of Brazil

Huge fires were spotted burning on Fazenda Parceiro as recently as early October and were estimated to have affected at least 65 square km of land. Timelapse satellite image showing deforestation in the municipality of Formosa do Rio Preto, western Bahia state, Brazil.

Farmland encroaches on native Cerrado vegetation in the Matopiba Photo Kruppe/Greenpeace

An investigation has revealed that Britain’s leading supermarkets and fast food outlets are selling chicken fed on soya that has been linked to vast deforestation and thousands of fires across this vital region of tropical woodland the Cerrado. Commodity agribusiness like Cargill require large acreages and investments at scale to facilitate highly mechanised crop growing, and investments made in the region tend to only benefit wealthy, well-connected producers and large multinationals, said Willian Menezes, a doctoral researcher studying the dynamics of agriculture in Western Bahia. “Large global firms dominate the soybean circuit, command the market for pesticides, fertilisers, agricultural machinery and implements… I guarantee you, based on research over four years, that soya did not bring wealth to the population of these small cities… the local economy is not active,” he added.

A 2019 Greenpeace Brazil investigation documented intimidation and violence against the local traditional communities as well as checkpoints, fences and ditches that cut across community land, restricting traditional community (Geraizeiros’) movement. The Geraizeiros say their lives have been completely upended by soya farming. They can no longer graze their cattle on the plateaux (chapada), and the plants they relied on have been replaced with endless soya fields. Without chapada vegetation rooting it in place, sandy topsoil silts up the rivers and springs which are their only source of water.

Matopiba is Brazil’s newest soya frontier, an expanding agricultural powerhouse that has driven Brazil’s record soya harvests. An exclusive new analysis by the Dutch NGO Aidenvironment has found vast deforestation and fires on land used or owned by nine Cargill suppliers in the Cerrado, mainly in Matopiba. While the Amazon rainforest has become the focus of global environmental concern in recent decades, its neighbouring Cerrado region remains largely unknown to the outside world. Yet despite being much smaller than the Amazon, it has lost more of its vegetation over the 10 years to 2018, and today only half of its original cover remains. The Cerrado’s trees, shrubs and plains are estimated to store the equivalent of 13.7bn tonnes of carbon dioxide – significantly more than China’s annual emissions. The savannah is considered a crucial part of South America’s water system and is home to many Indigenous communities as well as endangered animals, including jaguars, giant armadillos and giant anteaters. It provides a habitat for more than 4,800 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. It helps to flood the Pantanal Wetlands.

But although traders and international NGOs agreed a ban on felling trees in the Amazon for soya production in 2006, no such agreement has ever been reached for the Cerrado. While beef production continues to drive Amazon deforestation, soya is doing the same in the Cerrado, with the region estimated to account for 90% of soya-driven deforestation in Brazil.

Flock of rheas is seen in a soybean field in the Cerrado plains in Mato Grosso state, western Brazil. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty


Soybeans in a silo in Itacoatiara, Brazil. The soya will be loaded on ships for export. Photo: Werner Rudhart/Greenpeace


Export ships

Further, an investigation by Unearthed and a coalition of reporting partners has revealed the complex supply chains that bring this soya to the UK – much of it from the deforestation hotspot of the Cerrado, where allegations of land-grabbing, violence, and deforestation have been rife. Once Cargill’s soybeans from Matopiba arrive on UK shores, they are processed at its soya crushing plant in Liverpool for use in animal feed. It is estimated that Cargill ships more than 100,000 tonnes of soybeans to the UK every year from Brazil’s threatened Cerrado savannah.

The plant sends the processed soya to Cargill’s poultry feed mills in Hereford and Banbury. Cargill runs its UK chicken operations under the banner Avara, a joint enterprise with the British producer Faccenda. The soya is mixed with wheat and other ingredients at the feed mills, then taken to Avara’s contracted chicken farms.

Identifying a typical case, the investigation established that the Hereford mill supplies a nearby farm that sends birds on to McDonald’s. Avara also supplies chicken to Asda, Lidl and Nando’s, and is the largest fresh chicken supplier to Tesco. Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Nando’s, and McDonald’s have all said they are committed to tackling deforestation in their supply chains but acknowledged there was more work to do. All these corporations recently wrote to the government in support of the proposed legislation and urged that it be expanded to cover locally legal deforestation too. There is no reason that anyone buying a breast of “British chicken” or tucking into a McChicken sandwich would know that an American corporation had been involved at almost every step – or that swathes of Brazilian woodland had likely been flattened in the process.

Chris Packham, the Naturalist, said the revelations showed that consumers needed to be given more information about their food. “Most people would be incredulous when they think they’re buying a piece of chicken in Tesco’s which has been fed on a crop responsible for one of the largest wholesale tropical forest destructions in recent times. We do need to wake up to the fact that what we buy in UK supermarkets can have implications that are far and wide and enormously damaging, and this is a prime example of that.”

Ten years ago, Cargill set itself a deadline of ending deforestation in its supply chains by 2020. Last year it admitted it would miss that deadline. It now has a target of 2030. Even so, people on the ground in Brazil say that there is little sign of any such changes being enacted. “We see big, grand communications outside, at tables at big international events, but what we see in the field is completely different,” said Isabel Figueiredo, a Cerrado ecologist at the Institute for the Society, Population and Nature. “There is no direct connection between what they say and what they promote in the plantations.”

Looking over its history, it seems astonishing that criticisms of Cargill are not more well known. But the company is a master at managing basic information, not least its own public profile. The image of the plucky family firm striving to feed the world is one Cargill has cultivated for decades. It has taken on different guises from the 1960s but the message is basically the same: “we are doing the world a favour.”

What is the alternative? The answer is more sustainable agriculture, more local food supply, less consumption of processed convenience foods, more soil husbandry to guarantee our food supply future and in people terms more support for community based farming.

Wendell Berry wrote in The Art of the Commonwealth (2004)
“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”

Aidenvironment is a not-for profit research, advisory and implementing consultancy. Create sustainability impact in agricultural and forest landscapes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Developing a Global Rapid-Response Deforestation Monitoring System to help reduce deforestation worldwide.
Institute for Society Population and Nature. ENGO in Brazil Mighty Earth is a global campaign organization that works to protect the environment. We focus on the big issues: conserving threatened landscapes like tropical rainforests, protecting oceans, and solving climate change.
Millstone, Erik and Zwanenberg, Patrick van (2002) The Precautionary Principle in the Twentieth Century: late lessons from early warnings. Earthscan.
Berry, Wendell (2004) The Art of the Commonwealth. The Washington Post Book World
Carson, Rachel (1962) Silent Spring. Penguin
Unearthed Jordan, Lucy, Ross, Alice, Howard, Emma, Heal, Alexandra, Wasley, Andrew, Thomas, Pat and Milliken, Alice,(2020) Cargill: the company feeding the world by destroying the planet.

This article published in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Guardian and ITV News

Sally Campbell
November 2020