Soybeans and the trade war with China: why you should care

U.S. soy processors, exporters and some 300,00 American farmers understandably care deeply about the place soybeans have in our unfolding trade war with China. But the rest of us should care deeply as well, since this commercial dispute could permanently ravage our climate — flooding Baltimore, sparking fires across the American West and even compromising our health.

American soy interests harbor no illusions that recently promised payments to farmers hurt by the trade war could be anything more than a stop-gap measure. They worry that their share of soy’s huge Chinese market could be largely and irrevocably lost to soy farmers in developing countries. South America is already a formidable rival in the world soybean trade, and it got its start precisely because of an American blunder.

Brazil’s big boost in soy agriculture came in 1973 when the Nixon administration briefly cut off Japan’s supply of U.S. soy. The spooked Japanese concluded they could no longer rely on the U.S. as their only major supplier and began investing heavily in turning Brazil into a soy titan. Tropical cultivars of soybeans were developed, soil problems were corrected, great swaths of savanna and rain forest were razed, and trucking was expanded. Other South American countries, seeing the huge profitability of Brazilian soy farming, followed suit. Clearly, even brief interruptions in successful trading relationships can convince an importer that America is an unreliable partner. Buyers and investors turn elsewhere.

The “elsewhere” for soybeans is at the heart of why we should all care about soy in a trade war. American soy interests have a right to be concerned about their livelihoods. The rest of us should be concerned about the potentially massive environmental destruction that would likely ensue if China creates greater demand for soy from places like Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It is too late for the American tall grass prairie that soy and corn took over — hardly any of that ecosystem still survives — but it is not yet too late for the Amazon Basin or South America’s great dry forest, the Gran Chaco. It is not even too late to save some of South America’s coastal Atlantic Forest, although agriculture and urbanization have already claimed 85 percent of it.

South America is not the only place where a shift in the geography of soy threatens the natural environment. Soybean agriculture is on the rise in Africa, in no small part because of Chinese investments. Once again, new cultivars are being developed, soil problems corrected and great swaths of diverse eco-systems threatened.

Soybean production for China’s hungry population should be kept squarely in the places whose natural environments have already been sacrificed. That protects biodiversity elsewhere. Those “elsewheres” contain the forests that lock away carbon dioxide for us, reducing climate change. The fewer the planet’s trees, the more flooding, wildfires and extreme weather we are likely to have. We are also likely to have more tropical infectious diseases in the U.S. as our climate warms up. Trees keep the soil in place, too, reducing erosion and preventing silt from choking rivers — a common nasty side effect of deforestation. The tropical forests and savannas of diverse “elsewheres” also contain the biodiversity that could provide us with compounds for new medicines in the future — unless that biodiversity is destroyed before we get the chance. The environments endangered by soy’s role in a trade war even help to regulate rainfall patterns over vast regions, such as the Amazon. Every forest that is newly chopped down, every savanna whose natural balance is newly commandeered for soy agriculture, represents a loss to human well-being.

This is why non-farmers should care about soy in a U.S.-Chinese trade war. We should care about the fortunes of our fellow citizens, America’s farmers and soy handlers, and also about how the ill-health of tropical ecosystems could threaten our own health and safety. Flooding or malaria in Baltimore could one day be directly traced to a change in world soybean agriculture. And that could be traced to a trade war.

Christine M. Du Bois was a food anthropologist for the Johns Hopkins Project on Soy from 2001-‘08, and is the author of “The Story of Soy,” (Reaktion Books, 2018) a history of soy from its domestication to its genetic engineering, environmental impacts and uses as food, feed and fuel. Her email is cmdubois@alumni.princeton.edu.

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