The soybean curse: is Ukraine facing the same fate as the Amazon?
Protein Plan and Green Deal
The reasons for the commission’s plan are manifold. Soybeans were previously mainly used to produce vegetable oils, but their market value exploded when what was left after oil production began to be used as a cheap protein source in animal feed in the 1960s. Since then, the amount of soybeans grown in the world has increased sixfold. Most of it comes from the Americas and almost half from Brazil and Argentina. Soybean production in Brazil has quadruple in 20 years.
But since President Bolsonaro and the Brazilian far-right came to power in 2019, increasingly large swathes of the ecologically vulnerable Amazon rainforest have been set ablaze to make way for soybean plantations, highways have been built across. ancestral forests of indigenous peoples, and activists are increasingly targeted by loggers and farmers.
The EU Protein Plan was quickly followed by the launch of the European Green Agreement in 2019. This political blueprint to make Europe climate neutral by 2050 has, among other things, made the transfer of environmentally friendly protein production from Brazil to Europe an even higher priority. To this end, the European Commission is developing legislative proposals and targeted subsidies through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to encourage European farmers to start planting pulses. To grow sufficient amounts of soybeans to feed European livestock, the fertile soils of the eastern continent are crucial.
Friends of the Earth warns that too rapid a change will only shift the problems associated with soybean cultivation in South America to countries in Eastern Europe – where sustainability standards and legislative frameworks remain weak and corruption is rife current. There are growing concerns about land grabbing by large farmers, deforestation and pollution of soil and water from the overuse of chemicals.
Ukraine is already the soybean superpower in Europe, producing 3.9 million tonnes per year, far behind the world powers of Brazil and the United States. Series of obscure land deals allowing Ukrainian conglomerates to grow to unprecedented sizes have reinforced campaigners’ calls for the EU to remain cautious in the face of increased reliance on Ukrainian or Romanian soybeans.
Ukraine’s illegal GM soybean exports to the EU are also of concern. Under the biosafety laws in force in Ukraine, it is forbidden to cultivate unregistered GM crops. However, since there is no regulatory framework for the approval and registration of GM technology, no genetically modified crops are allowed for cultivation.
However, field research by Romanian NGO Agent Green and the Austrian government’s Environmental Institute shows that up to half of all soybeans exported from Ukraine could be illegally GM crops. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts it even higher: it estimates, based on “industry rumors” that up to 65% of all Ukrainian soybean exports may be illegal. Research samples ordered by German eco-certified supermarket Bio Landmarkt have also tested positive for GM contamination.
For Ukrainian seed dealer Volodymyr Onatskyi, this is not surprising: “We suspect that the first genetically modified soybeans were smuggled into Ukraine by a large poultry producer to produce cheaper fodder. Small-scale farmers selling their produce in local markets are now surrounded by GM soy plantations, managed by conglomerates. Farmers are starting to wonder how they will ever be able to pass fertile soils on to their children.
Currently, there are no formal sanctions in place for farmers caught growing unregistered GM soybeans in Ukraine. While some traders choose to use private agencies to verify their cargoes are not contaminated with GMOs, customs checks at Ukrainian ports do not include inspection of GMOs. A new bill to regulate GM activities, presented to the Ukrainian parliament in August 2021, could improve the chances of obtaining GMO-free soybeans.