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China Wants Food. Brazil Pays the Price.

If China could, it would plant its own soy. The protein-rich grain is critical to fattening up pigs, but it takes some 1,500 tons of water to produce one ton of soybeans, and the country has inadequate sources of water to fill the need. China “will never be self-sufficient in soybeans,” says Michael Cordonnier, president of Soybean & Corn Advisor, a consulting firm in Illinois. “There is no way they can produce enough to meet their demand.”

So the country must buy it. Before Trump launched his trade war against Beijing, China had relied on American soy. Their recent trade deal will put soy sales back on track—but between Trump and Bolsonaro, the Chinese now see the latter as a more preferable and dependable partner. Deal or no deal, Beijing is shifting to Brazil, where it now buys 70 to 80 percent of its soy. China’s largest food-processing company has 7,500 employees in the South American nation, with plans for further expansion.

Technically, soy cultivation should not drive deforestation of the Amazon, because of the “soy moratorium,” a deal brokered between Greenpeace, the Brazilian government, and agribusinesses more than a decade ago, when buyers pledged not to buy soy grown on newly deforested land. For a while, the pact led to a significant dip in the rate of deforestation.

But prospectors capitalized on weak rule-of-law and environmental-policy enforcement to find a creative way to continue profiting: First they’d raze trees to make way for cattle, and then, after a few years using the fields as pastureland, they would convert them to grow soy. Strictly speaking, the land would no longer be “newly harvested,” and the soy moratorium would hold. Even agribusinesses that are committed to the moratorium struggle with accountability when collecting information. The raising of cattle is now officially the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, both because there is genuine increasing international demand for beef and because developers are planning for eventual soy development.

A standing forest in Brazil surrounded by land cleared for agriculture and soy production. Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

Even if Brazil’s government and producers increase soy production, they will still need to overcome logistical bottlenecks. This is why Ferrogrão is crucial. The train would open up a new northern transport route, terminating along the Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon River. This would allow for the expansion and movement of 40 million additional tons of crop for China, Europe, and other markets by 2050. Together with the São Luís port overhaul and five other major ports that are either new or being expanded, the objective of the “Northern Arc,” as the route is known here, is to harness the might of the Amazon River system, the largest in the world. Brazil’s minister of infrastructure, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, who has called Ferrogrão a game changer for agribusiness, told us there was no cause for concern, that new infrastructure can be “sustainable” and will be built “without clearing a single tree.”

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