The good and bad news about Brazil's soy moratorium

A new study has shown that Brazil's Soy Moratorium -- an industry-led pledge not to clear Amazon rainforest for soy production -- has had incredible benefits.  But there's also bad news.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

The study, undertaken by U.S. and Brazilian researchers and published in the leading journal Science, was led by Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The team found that, prior to the Moratorium's commencement in 2006, about 30% of the soy planted in the Amazon directly replaced rainforest. 

That's a huge impact because Brazil will soon be the world's biggest soy producer.  Much of Brazil's soy is exported to China and Europe.

In fact, the impact of soy on the Amazon was even greater than Gibbs and colleagues suggest, because a lot of soy farmers bought up Amazon cattle ranches to expand their farms, pushing the ranchers deeper into the rainforest and thereby promoting more deforestation for ranching.

But after the Moratorium, the impact on the Amazon from soy fell sharply.  By 2014, less than 1% of soy replaced rainforest, according to Gibbs and colleagues. 

While this is a tremendous accomplishment, the Moratorium doesn't apply to Brazil's biodiversity-rich Cerrado, a vast but imperiled savanna-woodland that's a global biodiversity hotspot.  There, soy expansion continues to be a major driver of habitat loss.

Some in Brazil -- particularly elements of the powerful soy lobby -- are arguing that the Soy Moratorium should be dropped, because Brazil's government is effective enough, they say, to limit soy expansion into environmentally important areas.

But the study by Gibbs and colleagues suggests exactly the opposite.  They found abundant evidence of illegal deforestation in the Amazon, in areas such as Legal Reserves.  This suggests that the government alone can't halt illegal deforestation without help from major land-using industries such as soy producers. 

Hence, rather than being canceled, the Soy Moratorium should remain in force and should even be expanded -- to include the rapidly vanishing Cerrado as well.

Let's hope that sanity prevails in Brazil.  Those combating the Soy Moratorium will find themselves facing major boycotts and public shaming if they kill off one of the best industry-led environmental initiatives in the world.


Our biggest environmental crisis -- by far

The Ebola epidemic.  The Syrian crisis.  The murderous Islamic State campaign. 

These might sound like serious worries at the moment, but by the end of this century they'll seem about as frightening as a cricket match.

Our biggest crisis

Our biggest crisis

Why?  Because the Earth will have up to 13 billion people then, according to the latest demographic projections.  And the population won't even have stabilized yet.

These are astounding conclusions, and they result from the most robust population projections yet conducted, by a team of leading demographers using the latest United Nations data.  The results appeared recently in the world-leading journal Science.

Why does our population continue to skyrocket?  A key explanation: Africa.  Unlike much of the rest of the world, fertility rates (the average number of children borne per woman) haven't fallen in Africa. 

Fertility rates have also remained stubbornly high in the predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East -- and these are growing rapidly as well.

Conclusions like this should scare us all, but Europeans should be petrified.  Legal and illegal immigrants are already streaming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, in some cases causing serious social and economic conflicts. 

Concern over this has led to a resurgence of anti-immigration political parties across Europe.   

But imagine the situation in the year 2100, when Africa's population has quadrupled.  When the population of Nigeria -- already teetering on the edge of political and economic chaos -- has increased by 500%. 

Today's steady stream of desperate immigrants will become a tsunami.

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

There's one vitally important lesson here: It doesn't have to be this way.  Populations in Africa and the Middle East are exploding because women there don't have access to adequate family-planning information and contraception

It's also happening because educational and economic opportunities for young women are inadequate.

There's a very simple way to stabilize population growth.  Delay the age of reproduction.  If a woman has her first child at, say, 23 years old, instead of 18, everything changes.

She has fewer children.  Those children are better-off economically.  As a result, they have better educational opportunities, and are healthier.  And rates of divorce and domestic strife are, on average, much lower. 

As they grow up, children from such families are far less likely to become involved in crime, or to be unemployed and socially disenfranchized -- a key correlate of violence and radicalization of young people by extremist groups.

It all comes down to delaying the age of reproduction -- everything else follows from this one simple change.

If we want to avoid a truly calamitous future, we have to tell our politicians -- loudly and emphatically and often -- that they must invest in family planning and educational opportunities for young women. 

It has to happen now -- today.  And our biggest focus should be Africa and the Middle East, as well as other rapidly growing regions of the developing world. 

Forget about the latest screaming headlines -- the crises of the moment.  This is our biggest crisis -- the one that, most of all, will determine the ultimate fate and health of our planet.


More about imperiled vultures: Help needed

ALERT has received a further appeal about the potentially catastrophic threat to European vultures, by Dr Ralph Buij, a biologist affiliated with Alterra at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a member of the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group

Cinereous and Griffin vultures scrapping in Spain (photo by Ralph Buij).

Cinereous and Griffin vultures scrapping in Spain (photo by Ralph Buij).

Buij's plea follows here (see also our blog below):

After widespread and severe declines of important vulture populations in Africa and Asia, the conservation community in Europe is shocked to learn of the authorization of veterinary anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac in Spain and Italy. Diclofenac is the drug that brought Asian vultures to the verge of extinction.

In both EU countries, products containing Diclofenac are commercialized by FATRO ( - they were authorized for sale after risk assessments concluded the products to be “safe…for the environment, when recommendations are used.”

Vulture populations in Africa and Asia have been reduced to mere fractions of their former numbers. In Africa, strong declines have a variety of causes from loss of habitat and food resources, persecution, poisoning, to the use of vultures in the traditional medicine trade (Ogada et al. 2012).

The Asian vulture crisis was attributable to unintentional poisoning from Diclofenac, which was regularly used in the 1990s to treat cattle in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Vultures die from the consequences of kidney necrosis, resulting in reduced excretion of uric acid, usually within a few days of eating tissues of cattle treated with a veterinary dose of diclofenac (Pain et al. 2008).

Healthy populations--for now... (photo by Ralph Buij)

Healthy populations--for now... (photo by Ralph Buij)

Within a decade, Indian vulture populations declined from tens of millions in the early 1990s to only 1% of those numbers today. The costs of the vulture decline, which led to an increase in human rabies infections due to exploding feral dog numbers feeding on livestock carcasses, was estimated at US$34 billion in India (Markandya et al. 2008).

Now that vulture populations in Asia and Africa have collapsed over huge areas, European vulture populations are some of the strongest after decades of work and many millions of euros invested in their conservation.

Still, the Egyptian Vulture is threatened with extinction and listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Species and the Cinereous Vulture is listed as ‘Near Threatened’, while Griffon and Bearded Vultures have only recently recovered from very low populations after decades of conservation efforts.

Some of the largest populations of European vultures breed in Spain, which is therefore critical to European vulture conservation. The EU and its Member States have a legal obligation to conserve all vultures under the EU Birds Directive and to avoid ecological damage under the EU Veterinary Drugs legislation.

Rather than allow its use, the EU should act immediately and ban veterinary Diclofenac from the EU market. Given the environmental disaster this drug has proven to be, further efforts should be made to globally ban its use in veterinary medicine.

Please sign a petition here for an immediate ban on veterinary Diclofenac.

-Ralph Buij