Killing fields: the true cost of Europe's cheap meat

Soya fields cut through rainforest
Vast swathes of rainforest are destroyed to make way for soya monocultures
Cheap meat has become a way of life in much of Europe, but the full price is being paid across Latin America as vast soya plantations and their attendant chemicals lead to poisonings and violence. Andrew Wasley reports

Much of the cheap meat and dairy produce sold in supermarkets across Europe is arriving as a result of serious human rights abuses and environmental damage in one of Latin America's most impoverished countries, according to a new film launched in conjunction with the Ecologist Film Unit.

An investigation in Paraguay has discovered that vast plantations of soy, principally grown for use in intensively-farmed animal feed, are responsible for a catalogue of social and ecological problems, including the forced eviction of rural communities, landlessness, poverty, excessive use of pesticides, deforestation and rising food insecurity.

The film, Killing Fields: the battle to feed factory farms – produced by a coalition of pressure groups including Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch and with European coordination by Via Campesina, – documents the experiences of some of those caught up in Paraguay's growing conflict over soy farming and reveals, for the first time, how intensive animal farming across the EU, including the UK, is fuelling the problem.

Campaigners plan to use the film to highlight the 'unsustainable' nature of modern food production, and to spearhead efforts to raise awareness of the largely hidden cost of the factory farming systems supplying much of Europe's cheap meat and dairy produce.

The moves come as international concern over global food insecurity grows, and amid fresh warnings that millions of the world's poorest people face acute hunger in the coming months and years because of the twin threats of climate change – impacting farming in large parts of the developing world – and the ongoing credit crunch which has seen global food aid budgets slashed.

Protein king

Soy is prized for use in animal feed as it provides a cheap source of protein for poultry, pigs and other intensively reared animals that require fast growth in order to produce large meat, egg and milk yealds. The EU ban on the use of bonemeal and other animal by-products in agricultural feed following the BSE crisis has further driven demand for soy as a principal feedstuff.

Globally it has been estimated that as much as 97 per cent of soymeal produced is now used for animal feed.

Attracted by cheap land prices, poor environmental regulations and monitoring, widespread corruption and low taxation on agricultural export commodities, agribusinesses have long viewed Paraguay as an ideal country in which to do business. In recent decades increasing chunks of rural land have been bought up and turned over to export-orientated soy cultivation.

Paraguay is now the world's sixth largest producer of soy, with over 2.6 million hectares of land given over to cultivating the crop, and the fourth largest exporter. Vast quantities are exported to neighbouring Argentina, from where much of the crop is shipped to China to supply the country's growing demand for animal feed.

The EU is the second largest importer of Paraguayan soy, with Germany, Italy and the Netherlands among the biggest customers.

Indigenous people, such as this elder from the Kaiowa tribe, say that their traditional way of life is being eroded by intensive soya farming

Food supplies shrink

The arrival of export-orientated soy production in Paraguay has led to significant swathes of forest being destroyed to make way for crops, according to critics, threatening biodiversity and depleting resources vital for many rural communities.

In testimonies collected by investigators from villages adjacent to soy plantations – and featured in the film – local people complain that there is no longer an abundance of food and other produce:

'We indigenous people used to live from the forests, [from] animals, fruits... now we cannot do that any more because we are surrounded by ranches,' Jose Dolores Berraro, from the Yrbucua community, says. 'It's an invasion because instead of reforesting they come to deplete natural resources and these forests.'

Although new laws have been introduced to protect forested areas following the decimation of the world renowned and ecologically important 'Atlantic Forest' region, campaigners say the rate at which forests elsewhere in Paraguay are being devastated to make way for soy plantations is increasing, with some 500 hectares per day still being lost, according to some estimates.

Families have been displaced by the spread of soya farming. There are reports that those who refuse to sell their land to farmers have their land sprayed with herbicides

Chemical fix

Industrial scale soy production, particularly for genetically modified (GM) crops – some 90 per cent of Paraguay's soy is now thought to be GM – is dependent on the frequent application of powerful pesticides and other agri-chemicals which have been linked to environmental degradation and a host of negative health impacts on people living near to soy farms.

Crop spraying has polluted important water sources in many rural regions, say campaigners, poisoning both domestic and wild animals, threatening plant life, and resulting in a number of health problems in people, including diarrhoea, vomiting, genetic malformations, headaches, loss of sight and even death.

The film contains harrowing testimony from Petrona Villaboa, who lives in Pirapey, whose son Silvano died after being sprayed with toxic chemicals on a soy plantation.

Statistics compiled by pressure groups suggest that as much as 23 million litres of pesticides and herbicides are sprayed in Paraguay each year, including several that have been classified by the World Health Organisation as being 'extremely hazardous'.

Armed response

Paraguay has a long history of land conflict, and the arrival of large scale soy farming has been met with significant resistance from many rural communities. Peasant and indigenous organisations have repeatedly protested against the encroachment of their land – organising protests, blockades, land occupations and actions to prevent pesticide spraying.

But the response from soy farmers, often backed up by police and paramilitary units acting on the orders of the authorities, has been brutal, according to peasant leaders, with violent evictions, frequent shootings and beatings – resulting in numerous injuries and several deaths – as well as arbitrary detentions and frequent disappearances.

Those who protest against soya plantations have met with a heavy-handed response, according to campaigners

In one of the worst incidents to date, during the forced eviction of the peasant community at Tekojaja, in Caaguaza, soy farmers – reportedly under the protection of police and soldiers – forcibly removed some 270 people from the village, including children, arrested 130, set fire to crops and bulldozed houses, before shooting dead two inhabitants, Angel Cristaldo and Leopoldo Torres.

In another incident reported by the peasant's movement MCP, in Canindeyu, activist Esteban Hermosilla disappeared from his house and was discovered dead and half buried, on a nearby agricultural estate. His assassins reportedly cut off Hermosillas' ear as proof he had been killed, before sending it to the man who it was later claimed had ordered the murder.

Such cases are far from unique – peasant organisations have compiled a detailed dossier of violent repression linked to the soy industry in Paraguay – and pressure groups are keen to highlight this seldom-reported human cost of intensive farming.

Since the beginning of the soy boom in Paraguay in 1990, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 small-scale farmers have been forced to migrate to cities – with about 9000 rural families evicted because of soy production annually.

Upon arrival in urban areas, many familes are forced into slums and struggle to adapt. With few employment opportunities and little state assistance, many face a life of poverty.

Andrew Wasley is a journalist with the investigative agency, Eco-Storm

To see an extended version of the film available in 15 languages, and to find out more, visit

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