I recently went to Brazil to visit the soya-growing region of the Cerrado – which is more closely connected to all of us than we might think…
Like most people, I hadn’t heard of the vast tropical savannah area known as the Cerrado before. Located in the heart of Brazil and spanning an area the size of Mexico, the Cerrado is the most wildlife-rich savannah in the world.
But the more I found out about the UK’s reliance on soya, mainly used to feed our farm animals, the more I realised the sad truth about the Cerrado. The fact is, this little-known ecosystem is being gobbled up at frightening speed – and a lot of it is down to our desire to eat increasing quantities of bacon butties and chicken curries.
Over recent years livestock in the UK and Europe, particularly chickens and pigs, have become increasingly dependent on soya for feed. We don’t have the right climate to grow soya here in the UK so we rely completely on imports, mostly from Brazil and Argentina.
To keep up with the escalating demand, some beautiful pristine habitats, like the Cerrado, are being cleared to make way for agricultural land to grow soya.
Here at WWF-UK we’re working hard to stop this cycle, and make sure the soya in our food supply chains doesn’t impact on these wonderful places. One thing we can do is make sure we produce soya to a much higher standard, and without deforesting the most important areas for wildlife. That’s where my job comes in – part of it is working with the Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS) to push for higher standards across the soya industry globally.
Last month I had the exciting opportunity to travel to Brazil to see the Cerrado for myself. We arrived in Brasilia, the capital city, in the heart of the Goiás state. Within Brasilia there are pockets of native Cerrado vegetation – little islands of grasses, interspersed with thin twisted trees, in-between the rows of houses and roads.
As we drove out of the city sprawl and into the countryside, it wasn’t long before the landscape changed. The trees stopped and the grasses turned to field-after-field of soya, with some sugarcane and coffee crops too.
I’ll be honest – soya isn’t a particularly memorable or interesting crop to look it. It is basically a low-growing green bean that turns a pasty yellow as it’s left to dry out before harvest. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant and ordered salted edamame beans, you’ll know exactly what soya looks like (edamame are young green soya beans in their pods).
The dried beans are removed from the pods when they are processed. The beans are then crushed to extract the oil, and the remaining matter is used as ‘soya meal’, which goes into animal feed – most of which is sent for export around the world, including to the UK.
As we travelled around the soya-growing region of the Cerrado you could easily forget you were in Brazil. In fact, if you were dropped in the middle of one these fields and told to guess where you were, you might easily say the UK or Europe. There’s precious little native vegetation to be seen.
As we were leaving the area, on a journey that would take us past hours of soya fields, we were treated to an enormous angry thunderstorm – a reminder that we really were somewhere more tropical than Lincolnshire!
We travelled for hours to reach our destination of Pirenopolis, a historic old town in the heart of the Cerrado national park. The cobbled streets and old colonial buildings are surrounded by the forested part of the Cerrado – with huge palm trees that reach out above the canopy. Each afternoon a monsoon-style downpour would grey out the trees on the horizon as thunder rattled around the town. It’s a truly spectacular place.
Not far from Pirenopolis is the Pirineus State Park, one of the very few protected areas in the whole of the Cerrado. As we explored the park, the Cerrado’s own type of quiet beauty really struck me.
As you can see from the photos here, the Cerrado doesn’t have the same in-your-face, overpowering splendour as its famous neighbour, the Amazon. But on closer inspection, through the tall grass and wiry trees, there are so many treasures to be found – emu eggs, spiky flowers, towering palm trees are just a few.
Incredibly, the Cerrado is home to as much as 5% of the world’s biodiversity – many thousands of species of plants and animals…
As we made our way back to Brasilia the sun was setting. When the road snaked around one hill we were treated to a spectacular view of endless rolling hills, covered by rich grasses, with a huge waterfall cascading down between the rocks on the horizon. A typical Cerrado scene.
I’ve read all the facts about this disappearing savannah, but having seen it for myself now, it’s clear to me what needs to be done. Saving the Cerrado is definitely worth giving up a few bacon butties and chicken curries!