The American Farmers' Myth of
China is outsourcing its agricultural
production to Brazil of which American Biotech
has supplied its technology to. The
Biotech/Agbiz industry has been perpetrating
the global trade myth on American farmers to
establish credibility and to jumpstart its
world "acreage conversion
"plan, Monsanto and co-licensors really don't
care whether their profits come from Iowa
or de la pais de Brazil. Perhaps Americans
should learn Spanish ~Eileen Dannemann
The Route Of The Problem
April 13, 2007
Grist contributing writer Tom Philpott farms
and cooks at Maverick Farms , a
sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small
farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North
Carolina. This article first appeared
In what surely counts as one of the greatest
feats in the history of global trade, the
United States has essentially outsourced
its manufacturing base to China in little more
than a decade.
It all starts with shuttered factories. But in
doing so, the U.S. has helped unleash new
trends in global
agriculture that threaten global climate
stability and biodiversity. In short, China
is rapidly plunking down factories and
apartment buildings on prime farmland, and
polluting much of what remains with
To feed its rapidly urbanizing and meat-hungry
population, China is in turn outsourcing its
agricultural production to
Brazil, particularly soybeans for livestock
feed. In response, Brazil is plowing up its
vast savanna (and even rainforest) lands to
plant soy, negating vitally important natural
sponges for global carbon emissions and
swallowing habitat in one of the world's
richest stores of plant and animal life.
Great Leap Forward?
As recently as 1996, the U.S. imported a
modest $51.5 billion in goods from China, and
ran a trade deficit of $39.5 billion.
Last year, U.S. demand sucked in $287.8
billion in Chinese goods, and our trade
deficit gaped to $232.5 billion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. manufacturing base has
withered. American companies have been
shuttering factories and laying off workers
for decades, but those trends accelerated in
the late 1990s. According to the Congressional
Budget Office , U.S. manufacturing jobs
plunged by nearly 20 percent between 1999 and
2004, and stand at their lowest level since
the late 1950s.
The rolling up of our manufacturing base has
done little to mitigate growth in domestic
energy use, which continues to rise steadily.
But China's manufacturing boom has caused its
own use of the dirtiest fossil fuels, coal and
petroleum, to spike. Lester Brown of the
Earth Policy Institute reports that China's
petroleum consumption doubled between 1994 and
2004; the country now trails only the U.S. as
world's most profligate oil user. According to
the Financial Times, China expects its oil use
to double from current levels within
You can hear Wal-Mart's prices falling all the
way from China.
As for coal, The New York Times reported last
year that China already consumes more than
the U.S., Japan, and the European Union
combined. The Times added—chillingly for
anyone who understands the true horror of coal
use—that China has "increased coal consumption
14 percent in each of the past two years."
Moreover, as oil prices rise, China
is investing heavily in technologies to
convert coal into liquid car fuel.
Thus China's industrial boom has obvious—and
dire—consequences for climate change. What
does it mean for global agriculture? For
one thing, China's voracious demand has helped
ratchet up oil prices
over the last five years, and high oil prices
have sparked a global rush to transform food
crops into fuel. The U.S. government has
hotly promoted this trend, inspiring record
plantings of corn, our most
environmentally destructive crop.
More directly, as China's industrial footprint
grows, its farmland shrinks. About a year ago,
the Chinese government revealed that the
nation had surrendered about 8 million
hectares of farmland over the
previous decade—6.6 percent of its arable
land, and about two-thirds the amount of land
that's under cultivation in Iowa.
Industrial pollution has taken out another
similar-sized chunk of China's farmland. On
Monday, the government acknowledged that
10 million hectares had been "ruined " by
build-up of heavy metals,
mainly from coal-fired factories.
Plowing Up a 'Wasteland'
As its population grows and its farmland
disappears, China is also scrambling to meet
demands for a more Western-style—i.e.,
meat-heavy—diet among its population. That
means industrial-style meat production
—and mountains of soybeans and grain for feed.
Thus China is increasingly looking to Brazil
for sustenance. New York Times agriculture
reporter Alexei Barrionuevo reported last
week that Brazil's soy shipments to China are
growing exponentially. "Last
year Brazil sent nearly 11 million tons of
beans to China, a 50 percent increase from the
previous year and nearly double the
amount shipped in 2004," he writes.
Brazil's soy boom, driven also by European
demand, has already cut deeply into the Amazon
rainforest, probably the world's
most important natural sink for carbon
emissions, as well as a vital store of
biodiversity. However, much of that
deforestation is illegal, and the Brazilian
government has vowed to enforce bans on more
soy plantations. Just last month, the
government finally shut down a major soy plant
located at the mouth of the Amazon owned by
U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill. That move, if
it holds, should greatly decrease incentives
to illegally farm soy in the rainforest.
But development of the Cerrado region, a vast
savanna that borders the rainforest, continues
apace. Until the 1960s, when the
government began converting the Cerrado into
farmland, global agribusiness
interests viewed the area as an "inaccessible
wasteland " [PDF].
Yet the Cerrado is home to the Xavante Wará ,
an indigenous group that has been under severe
pressure from powerful soy interests. And like
its more famous geographical neighbor, the
multitudes of rare wildlife and vegetation.
According to a 2005 issue of Nature, the
region provides habitat for 137 endangered
species, "and the sparse, scrubby vegetation
features more than 4,000 species that grow
only here." The Nature Conservancy calls it
"the world's most biologically rich savanna."
Unlike the rainforest, the Cerrado draws
little legal protection. "Over the past 35
years, more than half of the Cerrado's
original expanse of 2 million square
kilometers has been taken for agriculture,"
reported Nature, adding that, if present
trends continued, the ecosystem would be gone
Turning the Cerrado into China's (and
Europe's) soy patch requires copious lashings
of synthetic fertilizers The region's
soils support a dramatic array of native
plants, but they don't work so well for
monocropped soy. Thus Brazil's soy miracle has
been built on a cascade of outside
inputs—typically supplied, Barrionuevo
reports, by the same agribusiness giants who
buy most of the soy, companies like Cargill,
Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge.
Thus, to go back to the beginning of our
story, our insatiable appetite for cheap goods
from Wal-Mart and other big-box
retailers comes at a steep price. We can't
stop China from devouring and fouling its
farmland, or unleashing vast stores of carbon
by burning through oil and coal. Nor can we
stop Brazilians from ripping into indigenous
homelands and precious stores of biodiversity
(though it should be noted that many U.S.
citizens have participated in the Cerrado land
But we can demand that the U.S. government
stop using supranational institutions like the
International Monetary Fund, the World
Bank, and the WTO to supercharge cross-border
trade and capital flows. And we can also, as
consumers, opt out as much as possible from
the Wal-Martization of everything, and work to
rebuild local economies.
Eileen Dannemann, former director, National Coalition of Organized Women