The human cost
As well as environmental damage, Brazil’s expansion of soya and cattle ranching comes at a deadly cost. Last year, 20 Brazilians were killed while defending the environment, making it the fourth most lethal country in the world for green defenders, according to Global Witness.
“If some of the Cerrado is still standing, it is because the traditional communities still exist,” said Valéria Santos, a coordinator of the Brazilian campaign coalition Agro é Fogo, created to fight deforestation and arson by large landowners, as well as the National Campaign in Defence of the Cerrado. “Conserving fields and forests and resisting the agribusiness expansion is part of their livelihoods, their survival.”
From Cerrado to Cornwall
Deep in the rolling Cornish countryside, largely hidden from public view, a vast factory-like complex sprawls across the hillside, its grey roofs a stark contrast to the green of the surrounding fields.
The unit isn’t a factory; it’s a giant dairy farm with more than 20 interconnected barns. Milk from the farm is sold to the multinational food company Arla, which makes Anchor butter and supplies supermarket milk in the UK, including to Asda.
The cows here, unlike many, are permanently housed all year. The farm is one of Britain’s increasing number of intensive dairy farms – or “megadairies” – modelled on US industrial milk production systems, that have sprung up in recent years. Hundreds of tiny cubicles cluster next to the main buildings; these are “calf hutches”, designed to hold young animals reared to enter the milking herd.
Critics of intensive farming say that, in recent decades, livestock diets have shifted away from grass and food waste, increasingly towards grains and proteins, including soya. Although some conventional dairy farms use soya to supplement other feed, the scale of intensive dairy units – where cattle do not graze – and need for certainty around feed means soya is preferred, industry insiders say.
Unearthed has learned that the cattle feed used on the Cornish megafarm contains soya, supplied by Mole Valley Feeds, a major supplier of animal feed to the UK dairy sector.
The investigation has established that Mole Valley also trucks soya-based cattle feed to dairy farms selling milk to Saputo, the parent company of Dairy Crest.
Saputo manufactures the household cheese brand Cathedral City, as well as Davidstow Cheddar, at its Cornish creamery.
Saputo farms are also supplied by a second company offering soya-based feeds, NWF Agri, which claims to feed “one in six” British dairy cattle.
Another feed company, ForFarmers, has been identified as selling soya feed rations to Arla supply farms, along with one farm selling milk products to Cadbury. Cadbury is wholly owned by the multinational snack company Mondelez.
Unearthed has established that both Mole Valley Feeds and NWF offer Cargill Triple S soya for sale in the UK. Mole Valley declined to comment, and NWF did not respond to our requests.
ForFarmers said: “In the UK ForFarmers sources its soya from three countries, of which only 14% is from Brazil” and that in that market “100% of soya bean meal used in all ruminant feed is covered by certificates from responsible soya schemes”.
Arla said it did not recognise Cargill’s Triple S as “a certification that meets our requirements of responsible production”. A spokesperson said: “Both Arla and the dairy farmers that own our cooperative are taking steps to manage our use of soya responsibly.” But they admitted: “We do not monitor the suppliers chosen by our farmer owners for their businesses.”
The dairy company added that since 2014, it had bought credits that support responsible soya farming. Arla described soya as a “small but important” part of cows’ diet and said some of its farmers were looking at homegrown alternatives such as pea protein.
Saputo said in a statement: “From early 2022, our Davidstow Farm Standards will mandate that all farms which supply to Saputo Dairy UK’s Davidstow creamery must source feed from suppliers with a sustainable soya purchasing policy.” The company said that for the past two years, it had bought credits used to support producers who cultivate soya responsibly.
A spokesperson for Mondelez, the American food company that owns Cadbury, said: “We’re working with manufacturers to promote sustainable business practices and have asked the UK Government to legislate for mandatory reporting across the whole supply chain, so we can source deforestation-free commodities such as soy.
“As part of our commitment to tackling deforestation, we have made it clear that we expect all our UK diary suppliers to work with us and contractually commit to ensuring they are sourcing 100% deforestation free feed by 2023.”
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are working together to tackle deforestation and drive greater uptake of certified sustainable soya in their supply chains.”
An Asda spokesperson said: “We understand the importance of sustainable soya to our customers and are committed to reducing food production linked to deforestation.” The company said it was working with suppliers on a plan to ensure all its soya is “physically certified” by 2025.
The British dairy industry used an estimated 360,000 tonnes of soya from countries including Brazil, Argentina and the US as animal feed in 2019. This volume is dwarfed only by the poultry sector’s usage of soya and makes dairy farms the UK’s second-biggest consumer of soya-based feed.
Cargill dominates the soya trade into the UK, controlling about 70% of the market. The company ships more than 100,000 tonnes of soybeans to the UK every year from Brazil’s Cerrado region alone.
Most of the soya that is exported from Brazil is produced in the Cerrado, which once covered some 2,000,000 sq km. What’s left of the biome is increasingly fragmented and degraded, and vanishing fast, as big agricultural interests in Brazil rush to keep up with global demand.