January 01, 2008

U.S. corn subsidies promote Amazon deforestation

Today I ran across an article claiming that corn production is causing forest to be lost in the Amazon.

Amazon deforestation and fires are being aggravated by US farm subsidies, claims STRI’s staff scientist William Laurance.

According to Laurance, whose findings are reported this week in Science (December 14), a recent spike in Amazonian fires is being promoted by massive US subsidies that promote American corn production for ethanol. The ethanol is being blended with gasoline as an automobile fuel.

How is it doing that?

The US is the world's leading producer of soy, but many American soy farmers are shifting to corn to qualify for the government subsidies. Since 2006, US corn production rose 19% while soy farming fell by 15%.

And he says that Brazil is being effected particularly badly.

The drop-off in US soy has helped to drive a major increase in global soy prices, which have nearly doubled in the last 14 months. In Brazil, the world's second-largest soy producer, high soy prices are having a serious impact on the Amazon rainforest and tropical savannas.

"Amazon fires and forest destruction have spiked over the last several months, especially in the main soy-producing states in Brazil," said Laurance. "Just about everyone there attributes this to rising soy and beef prices."


So when I saw this I started looking around for proof of whether it is true or not. One of the first items I ran across was an article on how deforestation in Brazil in the 2006-2007 period was down 31%. In fact the rate is the lowest since the Brazilian government started tracking it in 1988.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell 31 percent for the 2006-2007 year, compared with the prior period, according to preliminary estimates from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The loss of 3,707 square miles (9,600 square kilometers) of rainforest was the lowest since the Brazilian government started tracking deforestation on a yearly basis in 1988.

Deforestation rates in Brazil have fallen by more than sixty percent since 2004 when a near record, 10,590 sq mi (27,429 sq km) were destroyed.

The article also has a graph showing the role soy farming is having in deforestation of the Amazon in comparison to the overall deforestation. And the caption on the graph states that soy production is but a small part of the problem. Here is a portion of that caption.

Overall soybean cultivation makes up only a small portion of deforestation, though its role is accelerating.

Full Article

So I don't know exactly how to take this. Soy production plays a small role in the overall rate of Amazonian deforestation. And the overall rate of deforestation in Brazil is down and has been going down since 2004. Unless I missed something this appears to just be another case of using ethanol as an excuse, I would guess in this case to bring attention to the cause of fighting forest loss.

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