Subduing the Soya Surge

4th September 2023

Erin LynchErin Lynch

We are the flour in your bread, the wheat in your noodles, the salt on your fries. We are the corn in your tortillas, the chocolate in your dessert, the sweetener in your soft drink. We are the oil in your salad dressing and the beef, pork or chicken you eat for dinner. We are the cotton in your clothing, the backing on your carpet and the fertiliser in your field.

(Cargill Corporate Brochure, 2001). (Source: The Ecologist)

Ever heard of Cargill? You’re not alone if you haven’t. Despite not quite being a household name in the UK, it would be hard to get through a day in modern Britain without brushing past a product, some component of which has been in a Cargill supply chain. The 150 year old company is the largest privately-held firm in the US by revenue, recording a whopping $165 billion in revenue in 2022. The war in Ukraine has meant higher demand than ever for crops, and huge profits for supply-chain middlemen like Cargill who provide a variety of products and services across the food, agricultural and bioindustrial industries. Cargill buys and sells a wide variety of grains and oilseeds, produces and distributes livestock feed, manufactures chemicals and materials for pharmaceutical companies and heavy industry and processes meat and poultry.

Notably, Cargill is also one the largest exporters of Brazilian soya, an oilseed product found on countless supermarket shelves and consumer goods items, as well as in livestock feed. Tesco, Lidl, Asda, McDonald’s, Nando’s and many more high-street names have sourced chicken fed on soya supplied by Cargill.

Cargill ships over 100,000 tonnes of soya beans into the UK every year from Brazil’s threatened Cerrado savannah. This number doesn’t include the many thousands of imported food products that already contain Cargill-sourced soya.

In May, ClientEarth announced a new lawsuit against Cargill at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), citing investigations linking the company to deforestation as well as human rights abuses. ClientEarth have brought a complaint under the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, alleging that Cargill’s environmental and human rights due diligence policies and procedures do not adequately address the company’s contribution to deforestation, nor the human rights impacts of its soya operations in Brazil.

Over the past twenty years Cargill has been linked with numerous climate and human rights controversies — in particular, deforestation association with soya plantations in Brazil, and human rights abuses on farms where their products are sourced. As a supply-chain middle-man, Cargill has faced relatively less public scrutiny than, say, Shell, or BP, whose role in the climate crisis is more clearly laid out in the public imagination.

It can be hard sometimes to square lawsuits like these with the image large companies put out. Cargill have an extensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) practice, and donated $163 million to charity partners and local communities in 2022. Their website features numerous articles on their sustainability strategy, impact, and responsible business practices, including a commitment to ‘transform’ their agricultural supply chains ‘to be free of deforestation by 2030’. ClientEarth has requested that Cargill fully disclose their due diligence policies and procedures with regard to Brazilian soya operations, and where necessary implement further measures to align with global standards.

What next? The first step is for the The US National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD to determine whether the lawsuit is admissible by assessing whether ClientEarth’s allegations are 'material and substantiated’. It NCP admits the complaint, Cargill and ClientEarth will be invited to resolve the issues through mediation — where the parties’ participation is voluntary. After this process is completed, the NCP will publicly issue a final statement outlining the allegations and outcome of mediation, as well as any recommendations to Cargill.

Soya and Deforestation

Over the past 50 years, soya production has increased 15 fold, becoming an important source of protein, fibre, and oil worldwide. Soya represents around 27% of worldwide vegetable oil production, however, it would be wrong to overstate human consumption — 77% of the world’s soya is fed to livestock for meat and dairy production and only 7% goes towards humans. We touched on the connection between soya and British farming in a previous blog when we looked at how the Sustainable Food Trust is lobbying for the return to swill as a source of food for Britain’s pigs. SFT has shown that more than three quarters of (the very intense) carbon footprint associated with British pork relates to feed — in large part due to the habitat destruction associated with overseas soya production.

Brazil is the world’s largest soya producer and exporter, producing almost 135 million tonnes in 2021. A groundbreaking 2021 study that used satellite imagery to survey land use across Brazil found that the expansion of soya plantations is the second largest direct driver of deforestation after pasture for cattle farming. Cargill specifically has been linked to at least 300 sq miles of deforestation in the Brazilian Cerrado.

Human Rights Allegations

The deforestation and human rights abuse claims are closely interconnected. Last year, Earthsight, an investigative non-profit that investigates environmental and social crime and injustice, found that Cargill sourced soya from Brasília do Sul, a 9,700-ha soya farm in Brazil, built on land stolen from the Guarani Kaiowá, an indigenous tribe. Earthsight’s collaboration with De Olho nos Ruralistas, ’There Will Be Blood’ found that the community’s rights have been ‘brutally suppressed’ in recent years, and a prominent community leader, Marcos Veron was beaten to death by employees of the farm.

Cargill responded, confirming that while the firm does in fact source soya from the farm, it ‘respects internationally recognized human rights throughout our own operations, supply chains and the communities where we do business’. However, they also went on to say that while they respect indigenous areas, ‘the process to demarcate indigenous land in the mentioned area of Brasília do Sul farm is not regulated yet, so there’s no illegality on the local produce’. In other words, they could get away with it on a technicality.

Supply Chains & Consumers

It’s hard for ethically minded consumers to avoid the trace elements of these gigantic companies, or to avoid inadvertently supporting them by buying products that use Cargill soya. In addition to daily food-shop conundrums, many of us may be inadvertently supporting these companies through pension plans or stock options. In 2021, The Intercept published an extensive piece connecting popular pension plans, major global finance institutions and Brazilian deforestation.

The Role of Law

Issues like these seem to require the law’s heavy fist. As ClientEarth launches its lawsuit, Earthsight is also currently calling on the EU to strengthen a long-awaited directive on corporate sustainability due diligence law. After years of deliberation, the European Commission published its proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) in February 2022. The Directive will (hopefully) oblige companies, including those in the financial services, to demonstrate what action they are taking to protect environmental and human rights. The adoption of the law has been delayed however by disagreement among EU legislators about the scope of directors’ duties and the extent to which it should apply to financial institutions.

While we don’t know the outcome yet of the OECD litigation, increasing scrutiny of complex global supply chains is a vital step in being able to distinguish corporate greenwashing from genuine statements. Better scrutiny also helps us be able to make more informed consumer choices.

Good Tythings

Carbon Reduction

Carbon Reduction

The Clean Air Task Force has penned an open letter with a coalition of MPs calling for the ban of routine flaring. Gas flaring is the burning of natural gas associated with oil extraction. It commonly occurs for safety reasons — oil collects underground and gas accumulates around it which must then be drawn out. Burning the gas can help reduce the pressure. However energy companies have also been accused of flaring to avoid the costs associated with collecting and transporting surplus gas. The World Bank estimates that 144 billion cubit metres of gas were flared in 2021, over 400m tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 9 trillion miles of car journeys. In The North Sea alone, oil and gas companies have wasted enough methane to power more than 700,000 UK homes. Shockingly, the UK flares more than five times more methane gas as Norway, despite producing half as much oil.

In 2015 The World Bank launched the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 (ZRF) initiative, and banning routine flaring. The more ambitious goal to ban venting by 2025 was one of the key recommendations made in the Mission Zero: Independent Review of Net Zero report, chaired by Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP. The government rejected this proposal, citing its signature on the World Bank’s proposal. However, the 2030 initiative is merely a ‘challenging target’ rather than an outright ban, making this rather lacklustre.

Immense US Investment in Carbon Removal

On Friday 11th August, the Biden Administration announced the first winners of a new $3.5b carbon removal programme that aims to accelerate direct air capture (DAC) projects across the United States. Sasha Stashwick, director of policy at Carbon180, called the announcement a “a really big moment for this technology, for the sector and for carbon removal as a whole”, citing how the programme had the potential to boost the global capacity of DAC projects 400 times.

The winners — 1PointFive and Project Cypress will be based in Texas and Louisiana respectively.

Marine Conservation

Marine Conservation

The Value of Seabeds

Blue Marine Foundation alongside the University of Exeter and Convex Group Limited, partnered to create Convex Seascape Survey, an ambitious, give-year global research programmer to track, monitor and measure the benefits of ‘whole seascape recovery’. The Survey focuses specifically on continental shelf seabed habitats, which, despite covering 38 times more space than coastal mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh, are often overlooked for their role in mitigating climate change.

The Convex Seascape Survey team, based on the Isle of Cumbrae in Scotland recently produced a mini-documentary highlighting how they work and exploring the role of benthic invertebrates in moving carbon around the seafloor.

(24) The Great British Bioturbationathon - YouTube

The Myth of Victorian Sewers

Politicians and private water companies have long relied on the image of ‘antiquated Victorian infrastructure’ to explain Britain’s polluted waters, but recent analysis suggests the real problem is and has always been underinvestment.

According to a recent study led by Arup and Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp), less than 12 per cent of the sewage network in England and Wales was built in the 19th century. This finding undermines that widely-held belief that sewage overflows following storms are the result of antiquated Victorian infrastructure. The study found that a fifth of the network was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Professor Peter Hammond from the WASP team said “Victorian sewers constitute a minor proportion of the sewer network and cannot be blamed for the toxic mix of untreated human waste and road surface run-off polluting our inland and coastal waters”. “The disparity of infrastructure investment before and since privatisation must surely bear the brunt of blame.”

The Financial Times analysed data from the water regulator, finding that investment on wastewater infrastructure — including pipes — has fallen in real terms from an annual average of £3bn in the 1990s to £2.7bn in the 2020s so far, despite a 16 per cent increase in the population in the past two decades. The result of this underinvestment, they argue, is an overwhelmed sewerage system.

Its hoped recognition of the real causes behind the frequent spills might help shepherd us to more productive conversations and investments.

Forest Conservation

Forest Conservation

The Black-Breasted Puffleg — Ecuador’s Unique Hummingbird

Rainforest Trust put a spotlight last month on the Black-breasted Puffleg, a tiny hummingbird found in the forests surrounding the Pichincha volcano in northwestern Ecuador. It is critically endangered, with no more than 250 suspected to remain in the wild, and 150 or fewer mature individuals. The bird’s radius is understood to be limited to 13 square miles, but in the past 30 years, 93% of its habitat has been degraded or destroyed by charcoal production, timber harvesting and agriculture. The things that make the Black-breasted extraordinary such as its small radius and seasonal migration, have also made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. The Rainforest Trust have been working since 2002 with its partner Fundación Jocotoco to establish and expand the Yanacocha Reserve, just west of Quito, where a majority of sightings have occurred. When the expansion is finished, it will cover nearly 3,000 acres.

Historic Vote to End Oil Extraction

Ecuador has featured prominently in the news recently as the country emerges from a historic referendum to cease resource extraction in an area that threatened Indigenous rights. On August 20, 5.2 million Ecuadorians voted in favour of a motion to ensure that crude oil should “remain in the subsoil” indefinitely in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil project, also known as oil block 43. A remaining 3.6 million voted against. The vote makes Ecuador became one of the first nations to put resource extraction to a democratic vote. In Quito, residents voted to block gold mining in the Chocó Andino de Pichincha, a highland biosphere near the capital city and near the Yanacocha Reserve.

The ITT project is located along the eastern edge of Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on earth and holder of various ‘richness’ records for amphibians, reptiles, bats, and trees. The Park houses over 1400 species of animal, 1,130 species of trees and 593 species of birds in an area stretched over 9,000 km2. One single hectare of Yasuní forest is believed to contain as many as 100,000 unique insect species.

Opponents to the bill had argued mostly along economic lines. Oil production has generated more then $4.2 billion in revenue for the country, and crude oil production accounts for nearly 30% of Ecuador’s exports. Earlier this month, the credit rating agency Fitch downgraded Ecuador’s credit score to CCC+ and negative responses to the referendum could further slow recovery.

Those in support of the bill however cited how the devastating oil spills and disruption to the indigenous communities living there. Activists have been fighting for this vote for almost a decade. In 2007, Ecuador proposed a plan to leave the ITT oil reserves in the ground if wealthy countries contributed $3.6 bn to offset lost revenue. This plan did not receive sufficient international support and was eventually abandoned in 2013.

‘Yes’ campaigners also believed that the promotion of eco-tourism, alongside a series of other economic reforms could help address loss in revenues.

The result also represents a huge win for the Indingenous communities living in voluntary isolation in the Park, in particular the Tagaeri and Taromenane people.

Sarah Shenker, head of the Uncontacted Tribes campaign at Survival, an NGO that works on behalf of tribal peoples, said : “This is a major victory for Ecuador’s Indigenous movement, and for the global campaign to recognize the rights of uncontacted tribes.

“The uncontacted Tagaeri, Dugakaeri and Taromenane have for years seen their lands invaded, firstly by evangelical missionaries, then by oil companies. Now, at last, they have some hope of living in peace once more. We hope this prompts greater recognition that all uncontacted peoples must have their territories protected if they’re to survive, and thrive.”

New Wildlife Corridor in Armenia

Last year new opportunities to explore the exquisite wildlife Armenia has to offer were unlocked with the establishment of the new Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) — of which a 535-mile portion crosses Armenia. The trail was spearheaded by NGOs HIKEArmenia and Trails for Change alongside British adventurer Tom Allen, and built by teams of intrepid volunteers. The Transcaucasian Trail, now an organisation in its own right has as its mission to develop, promote, and maintain the Transcaucasian Trail in order to improve access to the region’s diverse cultural and natural heritage and encourage its preservation, benefiting local communities and trail users through the development of sustainable tourism.

While still in its infancy, the trail has brought not only intrepid hikers, but also commerce and cultural exchange, with entrepreneurs and generous, excited locals inviting tourists to engage in local businesses and customs. Various guided programmes enable participants to learn about biodiversity and establish a personal connection with the natural world.

Caucasus Wildlife Refuge

Meanwhile, The World Land Trust have been showcasing their work in Armenia’s Caucasus Wildlife Refuge as they hope to bring more attention to the area and raise more funds. The Wildlife Refuge is situated in one of the world’s 35 most biodiverse regions and covers a vast ring along the south of the Sevan Lake, approximately 50 km southeast of the capital city, Yerevan. Its large forest tracts of oak and juniper were logged in the 1990s as the country underwent economic crises, but forested areas, wooded steppe, semi desert, rivers and streams, and grassland (alpine, sub-alpine and boreal) remain. Sitting at the nexus of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the Refuge houses a unique mix of flora and fauna and animal species meet.

The Caucasus Wildlife Refuge was created in 2011 by the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC), an organisation founded in 2002 by Armenian filmmaker Ruben Khachatryan and zoologist Hrach Ghazaryan.

Climate Resilience

Climate Resilience

Sand Dams Tree-Planting with Ecosia

In 2022 Sand Dams Worldwide partnered with German search engine Ecosia, who donate 100% of their profits toward planting trees and supporting non-profits focused on reforestation. Through this partnership, in 2022 Sand Dams Worldwide has helped 40 self-help groups (SHGs) to plant tree seedlings in their nurseries and later distributed to farms and homes. 1,153 farmers now planted 53,358 trees include citrus, cassia (senna siamea, senna spectabilis), moringa, mango, melia, gravelia, avocado, jacardana, java plum, Indian Almond, riverrine acacia and croton.) In 2023, SDW and ASDF aimed to scale up the project, working with 89 SHGs to produce and manage 170,000 more seedlings in the nurseries. With the Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), Sand Dams Worldwide will continue to monitor the trees 1, 3 and 20 years after planting.


Sand Dams Worldwide host a series of expeditions across the year engaging volunteers to work with community members in places in need of sand dams. The latest cohort in June 2023 worked with members of the Ngui A self-help group in southeast Kenya and recorded their reflections in video. Expeditions like this are excellent opportunities to help organisations like Sand Dams International and their beneficiaries through fundraising as well as direct on-the-ground support.

Permission to Fail

This year SolarAid released ‘Permission to Fail’, a new podcast that recounts and reflects on and explores their experiences of trial, error, philanthropy and entrepreneurship in their work delivering solar energy in sub-Saharan Africa. In their latest episode ‘Funding with Permission to Fail’, they explore whether restrictive funding is holding back sustainable development for charities. As a funder ourselves, this provides a really useful insight into how to foster the conditions for innovation and trust on-the-ground expertise, while also still allowing space for accountability and measurement. You can listen to this episode (and others) on their website, or read the transcript at the bottom of the same page.

Food & Agriculture

Food & Agriculture

Sustainable Food Trust and ‘Green Social Prescribing’

In June 2022, the Sustainable Food Trust embarked on a new pilot project to connect local doctors with working farms close to Bristol. Ran in partnership with the College of Medicine and the University of Bristol, the idea behind the scheme is to improve public health and wellbeing by providing an alternative to the ‘pill for every ill’ approach to healthcare prescription. Connecting people to nature-based interventions and community activities is shown to reduce loneliness and improve mental and physical health.

The Trust has been reflecting on the first year of the project — both successes and failures, some of which were mentioned on BBC Sounds interview with Catherine Withers from Yew Tree Farm, one of the participating farms on the programme. Withers also discusses her experience on ‘Bristol’s last working farm’ and the threats they face.

On Your Farm - Bristol's last working farm - BBC Sounds

Future Food, Future Crops

In the light of temperature increases in the UK (those we’re already experiencing, as well as projected increases), The Sustainable Food Trust have been exploring what crops might fit into a more sustainable farming systems.

Grapes and Wine Production

One major example they give is grape vines. While grapes are not unknown to the UK, and 900 individual vineyards cover the British Isles from the Isles of Scilly to northern Scotland, the warming climate is creating much more favourable conditions for domestic wine production. Increasing temperatures will also enable British winemakers to produce a wider variety of wines from grape varieties previously unsuitable to our climate.

A study published in 2022 found that the projected climate conditions in England and southern Wales in 2040 will match those found in Pinot Noir areas of Champagne between 1999 and 2018. This is of course a silver lining to a quite bleak future. While the UK prepares for new grape varieties, many in other countries mourn the potential loss of both grape varieties and ways of living.

Something different for your evening viewing

The Sustainable Food Trust prepared a list of recommended food and farming films, especially selected, watched and reviewed by the SFT team. The first one is ‘A Shepherd’s Life Lessons’, a 20 minute portrait of the Welsh shepherd Wilf Davies, produced by the New Yorker. This, as well as two others are available for free.

European Growth

New analysis from the Good Food Institute has found that, to date, European Nations have invested more than €477 million for plant-based and cultivated meat. The State of Global Policy report found that European governments (both EU and national) have increased support for the industry. Denmark in particular announced €91 million in 2022 to support the country’s plant-based sector, including incentives for farmers to grow protein rich crops. The EU the Netherlands both launched funding programmes to support research and development.

While this is positive news, research funded by the UK Foreign Office and ClimateWorks suggests that it will take more than $10 billion each year to ‘realise the full benefits of the sustainable protein sector’.

Italian Woes

At the same time, Italy’s government earlier this year approved a draft bill to ban the production and commercialisation of cultivated meat for human and animal consumption. If successful, Italy would become the first country in the world to ban its companies from producing lab-cultivated meat. Proponents argue the ban would protect human health and domestic agriculture, with a representative from Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farming association saying that homegrown produce has to be protected from ‘the attacks of multinational companies’. Scientists fear the proposal will stifle Italian innovation and discourage private investment. The silver lining is that even if the bill does pass, EU trade laws prevent banning cultivated meat imports, so Italian dining tables could still feature alternative proteins. It would nevertheless severely damage Italian innovation.

Regulatory Approval in the US

In general, Europe lags behind the United States in terms of when lab-grown meat might be available on our shelves and plates. In July, the US Department of Agriculture gave two brands full approval to sell their cell-based chicken in the United States. This was the first time the federal agency gave cultivated meat such approval.

Education & Advocacy

Education & Advocacy

From January 2021 to July 2023, Action for Conservation, alongside 35 other registered charities participated in the Green Influencers Scheme to encourage young people to develop a meaningful and lasting connection with nature and contribute to their local community through environmental action. The scheme gave each charity funding to hire a “green mentor”, a youth worker with experience of climate or environmental education. A total of 5,000 young people aged 10-14 were recruited, with mentors targeting specifically under-served communities and schools with high numbers of children eligible for free school meals and pupil premium funding. Analysis of the scheme found that, of 4,200 young participants surveyed, 68% said it improved their teamwork skills, 77% intended to continue taking part in social action projects, and 91% felt others had benefitted from their projects. Analysis found that participation had a significant impact on young people’s wellbeing and connection with nature.

A Musing

For International Youth Day, members of the Penpont Project’s Youth Leadership Group were invited to share their musings on nature. Emily, 15, shared ‘A Walk in the Woods’ — reflecting on both nature and music

An update on ClientEarth’s Shell Litigation

ClientEarth have twice been refused permission to pursue their derivative action claim against Shell. ClientEarth had earlier this year brought a case against Shell directors for breaching their duties to shareholders. Refusal has not slowed the charity down, and media interviews with ClientEarth lawyers indicate the charity is planning to appeal once again.

Good News from Belgium

In June, a Belgian Court ruled that it would annul the environmental permit granted to company Ineos Olefins Belgium (INEOS) by the Flemish Government for a new ethane cracker (ECR) in the Port of Antwerp. ClientEarth, along with 13 other NGOs took action against petrochemicals giant to try and block the ‘Project One’ facility which would have converted fossil gas imported from the United States into ethylene and propylene, two key building blocks of plastic. 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, the process of which is highly carbon-intensive, generating significant carbon emissions. The production process is also known to be highly toxic to neighbouring communities. Following ClientEarth’s action, The Court of the Council of Permit Disputes found that INEOS’ failure to to tell authorities the full extent of the project’s predicted impact on the surrounding environment meant that approval should not have been granted.