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Fat Like Us: Europe’s Diet Becoming Americanized Thanks to Soy Feed Imports

Washington, D.C. – Decades of trade rules that dismantled or restructured farm safety net programs in the European Union have displaced sustainable, domestic feed grain production and escalated dangerous soy imports from Latin America—and helped turn European farms into polluting factory farms while driving down food quality and expanding waistlines, according to a new report from consumer organization Food & Water Watch.

McDonald’s Earned More Revenue From Europe than U.S. in 2009

Washington, D.C. – Decades of trade rules that dismantled or restructured farm safety net programs in the European Union have displaced sustainable, domestic feed grain production and escalated dangerous soy imports from Latin America—and helped turn European farms into polluting factory farms while driving down food quality and expanding waistlines, according to a new report from consumer organization Food & Water Watch.

The report, The Perils of the Global Soy Trade, reveals that EU member states’ (EU-15) net soy meal imports grew 57.1 percent since global WTO trade rules entered force, from 12.9 million metric tonnes (28.4 billion pounds) in 1995 to 20.2 million metric tonnes (44.5 billion pounds) in 2007. During the same period, the EU-15 shed 1.7 million farms—nearly a quarter of all farms.

“International trade rules have created a soybean industrial complex that is fattening both livestock and humans in Europe, just like it has in America,” says Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

Trade rules have made soy a cheaper alternative to domestic feed, helping transform pig and poultry holdings in Europe into factory farms like their U.S. counterparts. With this shift to cheaper feed comes more processed, industrialized, fast food. In 2009, McDonald’s actually earned more revenue from Europe (41 percent) than the United States (35 percent.) Now, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil made largely from soybeans is a key shortening in processed desserts and frozen foods as well, adding even more soy to European diets.

In the past several decades, these changes have helped broaden waistlines. The obesity rate in the U.K. more than tripled between 1980 and 2007, and France’s nearly doubled between 1990 and 2006. Almost half of Germany’s population was obese or overweight in 2005.

The glut of soy in Europe’s feed troughs primarily benefits a handful of companies that buy, ship, process and sell the raw agricultural inputs (soybeans and maize):

  • Four international firms dominate the global oilseed trade: U.S-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill, and the French company Louis Dreyfus. These firms were four of the top six exporters of soybeans from Argentina in 2009.
  • ADM operates 21 oilseed-crushing plants outside the U.S, and over 100 international oilseed elevators, including port terminals.
  • Bunge operates 56 oilseed-processing plants worldwide, processing more than 13,000 metric tonnes (28.7 million pounds) each day in Argentina alone.
  • Cargill, the largest privately owned firm in America, operates several facilities and terminals in Brazil and Argentina, and operates a fleet of cargo ships that connects their global network of storage facilities.
  • Louis Dreyfus owns two soybean crushing plants and two export terminals in Argentina, and operates a network of oilseed storage and export facilities in Brazil.

American pork and poultry companies also benefit from the soy industrial complex, allowing them to locate their production facilities where labor costs and environmental safeguards are weaker—like Eastern Europe, where Smithfield has begun operating.

Industrial soy has also had a negative effect on farmers, human health and the environment in Latin America. Soy monocultures (often genetically modified) have driven some farmers off their land, use massive amounts of water and generate huge amounts of pesticide use that has poisoned communities:

  • Between 1996 and 2008, applications of herbicide glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as Roundup), which is used to combat weeds on GM soy plantations, surged 14-fold in Argentina due to rampant weed resistance.
  • Brazil cleared 3.1 million hectares of forest annually between 2000 and 2005—an area larger than Belgium each year—deforestation that can be attributed to added land pressures from industrial monocultures, especially soybeans.
  • Soybean production in Latin America has concentrated farmland in the hands of investors and large landowners. Between 1988 and 2002, over 100,000 farms and 230,000 agriculture jobs disappeared in Argentina.
  • In 2007, Argentina’s soybean exports to the EU contained 14.9 trillion liters of “virtual water”—water withdrawals used to cultivate crops for export.

“Through its submission to industrial agriculture interests in trade deals, the EU has imported U.S. worst practices when it comes to factory farming—including an increasing reliance on soy-based feed,” said Hauter. “It’s destroying rural economies, human health, and the environment on two continents.”

CONTACT: Darcey Rakestraw, drakestraw(at)fwwatch(dot)org; 202-683-2467.