China Wants Food. Brazil Pays the Price.

National efforts to strengthen food security have an impact far beyond any single country’s borders.

The Atantic
Date: FEBRUARY 15, 2020

A worker in Brazil cleans the ground to prevent the fire from reaching their farm.CRISTINA DE MIDDEL / MAGNUM PHOTOS

This article is a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Pulitzer Center.

The Amazon tends to evoke an Edenic vision—of a mysterious and impenetrable land, pregnant with beasts from jaguars to anacondas, rich with undiscovered flora. But parts of it are incongruous with this reputation, where big rig trucks rumble past dilapidated, grime-covered gas stations, and where land once thick with brambly trees and the promise of jungle adventure has become cattle pasture or soy field.


We are traveling on a road unimaginatively named BR-163. Pull up Google Maps and zoom in to the state of Mato Grosso, and find the thin strand of highway wending up across the state.  Branching out are perpendicular brown lines, all of them unmistakably cleared land, cutting into and contrasting with the dark green forest. This highway is where agriculture and the Amazon jungle meet.

The rain forest here in Brazil has progressively fallen victim to global demand for soy and beef. And the country’s biggest customer for both is China. The story of the Amazon has become entangled not simply with the story of Brazil’s poor protection of its forest frontier but also with that of the rise of this new superpower and its food-security strategy. Soy is China’s weak link, the main food commodity it needs from the outside world. The country imports the crop, which it mostly uses to feed its pigs, and Chinese state-owned companies also invest directly in Brazil’s supply chain so the South American country can increase its own exports. This growing hunger for soy has incentivized Brazilian prospectors to keep pace by razing pristine jungle, thereby accelerating deforestation.

This dynamic highlights some of the tensions inherent in the challenge of combatting climate change. China’s middle class has a growing hunger for meat, leading to a rise in demand for soy. For a country that has pledged to honor the Paris Agreement, China’s food-security measures run counter to its environmental efforts, yet while the climate deal aims to reduce national carbon emissions, it doesn’t account for the activities and responsibilities of signatories in other countries. And Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, argues that the country must prioritize economic growth, even if it comes at the cost of destroying the planet’s largest tropical rain forest.    [FULL  STORY]