Large scale soybean production used for animal feed, biofuels and in food additives has come at a price: millions of hectares of rainforest and other sensitive ecosystems have and are being destroyed. In order to put an end to this the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and others founded the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy in 2004.
Today this initiative is called the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS). It comprises producers, finance, trade & industry representatives, NGOs, certification bodies and universities. Members range from Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, Bunge to Unilever, Shell, BP, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, WWF and producers such as Gruppo André Maggi - the world’s largest soybean producer based in Brazil. Its scope is to ‘promote responsible soy production irrespective of the type of production model’ and to develop a label to certify such soy as ‘responsible’. In order to achieve this aim, RTRS organises meetings to eventually reach a voluntary consensus based on several criteria. Its last one took place in May in Campinas, Brazil.
Since its inception the RTRS has come under criticism from NGOs such as Friends of the Earth International, the Global Forest Coalition and farmers associations, which argue that rather than stopping deforestation the RTRS legitimises soy expansion. Furthermore, given that roughly 60 per cent of global soybean production uses genetically modified (GM) beans, endorsing current production systems as ‘responsible’ effectively means endorsing GM soy production, and giving it the halo of ‘responsibility.’
As tends to be the case with monocultures, so argue the critics, soy monocultures cause and increase environmental problems; plagues, soil erosion, loss of agricultural diversity and destruction of regional economies. In the case of GM soy monocultures, they tend to create over-reliance on one herbicide (usually Monsanto’s RoundUp), resulting in the development of herbicide-resistant weeds; leading to the use of greater volumes of chemicals to control them. They also make famers dependent on patented product ranges and have been linked with health problems in people exposed to the aerial spraying of herbicides. They question the authentication of this kind of farming under the label ‘sustainable’.
On the subject of forests, the RTRS has the following to say:
‘The RTRS recognizes the importance of forests, rivers, biodiversity and fragile ecosystem conservation. It stresses the importance of respecting legal limits on deforestation, all conservation areas and international treaties on that matter.’
Those opposed to the intiative say that the companies behind it were supposed to be respecting those laws already, yet the result has been continued deforestation. They argue that ‘recognition’ and ‘respect for’ legal limits is far too weak and instead would like to see a stronger commitment and language.
Important issues on how monitoring and enforcement will be paid for, or when and how sanctions will be applied if criteria are broken or ignored, have, according to the critics, also remained unclear.
So where does that leave the responsible GM soy bean? There is currently fierce discussion amongst NGOs who argue that the RTRS process is ineffective in protecting the rainforest and other sensitive ecosystems and want to ensure that GM soy is excluded from any ‘responsible’ certification process.
In the run-up to the Campinas meeting over sixty organizations sent an open letter to RTRS’s members calling for it to be abandoned. WWF, which is officially opposed to GMOs, promptly responded:
‘… WWF believes that by developing standards with other stakeholders, we can have a far greater impact than by refusing to participate. … The RTRS is currently ‘technology neutral’ meaning that both GM and non-GM technologies can meet the RTRS standard, … If the RTRS principles and criteria included a prohibition on the use of GMs, their potential application would be restricted to the limited proportion of global production (estimated at 30%) that is GM-free. This would limit the potential of the RTRS to address impacts of GM soy production as well. … Options include an optional protocol within RTRS for those who want to verify that soy is non-GM or use of systems already operating in some national markets to identify non-GM products.’
In response to this, campaign groups A SEED Europe and Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) launched a petition asking WWF to abandon the process altogether. It was followed by a stunt in which several campaigners paid a visit to WWF’s Netherlands office, one of them dressed as a ‘Monsanto circus director’ who during the action tried to convince a fellow campaigner in a ‘panda’ costume to sign a RTRS declaration that ends with the words ‘I hereby declare GM RoundupReady soy RESPONSIBLE’. The panda refused.
The real panda seems to have been more equivocal, however. At its meeting in Campinas the RTRS executive board endorsed a criterion that could allow ‘responsible’ soy to be grown on land that was deforested as recently as May 2009. And soy can still be labelled ‘responsible’ when harvested from lands deforested after May 2009 if the producer can demonstrate that it was not prime forest or an area of High Conservation Value, or land belonging to local peoples. Argentinean NGO Fundapaz walked out of the process at this point, saying that it didn’t find the criteria strong enough.
At the time of writing pressure on WWF and RTRS is continuing, with 2400 people writing protest letters to RTRS’s members. On the other side, WWF maintains that it will stay the course with RTRS. The issue is set to continue dividing the environmental movement for some time to come.
Stephanie Roth is a former News Editor of the Ecologist.