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Soybeans are the battleship of agribusiness growth in Latin America. The crop is the most aggressive and damaging of commercial crops in Argentina and Brazil, and has expanded its territory dramatically in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The victims of the crop's destructiveness include family farmers, food supplies, biodiversity, soil quality, and clean water supplies; its beneficiaries are multinational corporations such as Cargill and Bunge, genetically modified seed manufacturers such as Monsanto, Chinese consumers, and a handful of Latin American agribusiness men, especially those in the meat industry.

By 1989 Brazil and Argentina supplied nearly two-thirds the total exports of world soybean meal. In response to growth of the Chinese market, soybean cultivation expanded dramatically during the 1990s in Latin America. By 2005, Brazil alone produced 30 percent of world supplies, second only to the United States.

Soybeans originated in Asia, and therefore many credit Japanese immigrants with introducing the beans to Latin America. But in 1882, before significant numbers of Asians immigrated to South America, the botanist Gustave Dutra reported experimenting with soybean crops in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Experiments were also conducted in Argentina before World War I. Scientists noted the special properties of the legume: One of the richest foods known, soybeans contain 38 percent protein and 18 percent oils and fats. They can be cooked and eaten in hundreds of different ways, used industrially to make everything from soaps to glue, and ground into a meal to make an excellent feed for hogs and chickens. Demand for soybeans did not begin to grow in the west until after World War II, and the Green Revolution brought great expansion of soybean agriculture came to Argentina and Brazil only after 1970.

Government policy has figured prominently in the growth of soybean agriculture in Latin America. In Brazil, the state encouraged its cultivation in the grasslands of the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul when climatic conditions weakened wheat crop yields. Much the same pattern developed in the state of Paraná in the early 1960s, when the government sponsored the eradication of coffee trees and the planting of soybeans and wheat. By the 1980s these two states yielded more than two-thirds the national total. State-sponsored experimentation produced soybean strains that would grow in the tropical, central plateau of Brazil. By 2000 soybeans were grown in seventeen of Brazil's twenty-six states. The introduction of genetically modified seed made it possible to better control damaging weeds and pests in humid zones, and the crop invaded hundreds of thousands of acres every year. In the early twenty-first century the government invested in roads, railroads, ports, and waterways to encourage its expansion into the Amazon region, greatly damaging biodiversity. In Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, the crop occupied more than 20 percent of agricultural land. In order to work the 500- to 2,500-acre fields of this highly mechanized crop, landowners and tenants relied on substantial government credit.

As an especially nutritious food, the soybean has been sold to the public as a means for ending starvation in Latin America. Most production, however, is geared toward export surpluses, cooking oil, derivatives for industrial use, and animal feed. Soy cooking oil now dominates the marketplace but critics note that fattened pig and poultry are too expensive for the poor. As an export crop grown most efficiently on large estates, the expansion of soybeans has forced millions of peasants off the land, further reducing the production of nutritious beans, vegetables, and fruits. Thus, rather than alleviating nutritional problems, soybean agriculture has tended to aggravate them. Moreover, without rotation, soybeans quickly exhaust soils, and the chemical fertilizers and pesticides required to sustain genetically modified soybeans pollute waterways. Supporters point to the tremendous foreign exchange earned by soybean exports and the thousands of jobs created by the soybean processing industry. They do not note, however, that for every job created by soybeans, eleven are eliminated.

See alsoBeans .


Altieri, Miguel, and Walter Pengue. "GM Soybean: Latin America's New Colonizer." Seedling (January 2006): 13-17.

Girardi, Eduardo Paulon. "O Atlas da Questão Agrária Brasileira." Ph.D. diss., Universidade Estadual Paulista, Presidente Prudente, 2008.

Hinson, K., E. E. Hartwig, and Harry Minor. Soybean Production in the Tropics. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 1982.

Morgan, Dan. Merchants of Grain. New York: Penguin, 1980.

Welch, Cliff. "Globalization and the Transformation of Work in Rural Brazil: Agribusiness, Rural Labor Unions, and Peasant Mobilization." International Labor and Working Class History 70, no. 1 (2007): 1-26.

                                                Cliff Welch

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