In Latin America, There's No Business Like Soy Business

Soybean harvest in Brazil
Soybean harvest in Brazil
Rodrigo Lara Serrano

SANTIAGO - The number, $7.9 billion, brings a smile to faces. That number corresponds to the amount of exports from Brazil to China in the first trimester of this year. The joy is reduced a little when you learn that 80 percent of that number comes from only three exports: soy, iron ore and petroleum. And the enthusiasm turns to outright worry when one discovers that the total amount of exports would have dropped 6 percent if it were not for just the soy exports.

It is expected world soy consumption will reach 290 million tons per year by 2019/2020. China is not the only consumer - Brazil is expected to consume nearly 13 million tons by 2020.

The solution to meet this demand has arrived in the form of a new type of soy, that is better adapted to drought and, possibly even more importantly, can grow in salty soil. This new plant will allow the expansion of cultivation into areas that had previous been considered unsuitable. Environmental activists, however, warn that this could lead to a new environmental disaster, just as occurred in central-west Brazil and in Northern Argentina, with the destruction of unique ecosystems.

GM Soy

What farmer doesn’t want a plant that is resistant to drought? In Argentina, Raquel Chang, a biologist and specialist in genetic modifications, used a gene from the sunflower that helps the plant resist drought and transferred it to soy.

It wasn’t an easy task, and involved extensive testing in the fields, but the result was a planet-wide patent on the soy seed that is resistant to drought. The company Chang works for controls the patent and has created a new company, Verdeca, to plant and harvest the soy. Chang says that the modified soy is more productive than regular soy regardless of how much water it has, although it is particularly well adapted to drought conditions. The potential profits from the endeavor are enormous.


Not everyone thinks that the advancements in drought resistance are really advancement. “In 10 years, 10 million hectares of forest have been cut down in the central and north part of the country. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of that was used to cultivate soy,” says Hernan Giardini, the coordinator of the forest campaign for Greenpeace in Argentina. If Verdeca’s seed is adopted widely, then Giardini predicts that “easily 10 million more hectares will be threatened.” He said that although he could understand that the seed might be good for farmers in regions that are prone to drought, forests that were previously saved because they were located in zones not suitable for agriculture, either because of drought or soil salinity, would now be in danger. In theory there should be laws protecting the forests, but in practice the laws and zoning rules can be changed easily.

In Brazil, experts from Embrapa-Soja, another company that is testing drought-resistant seeds, doesn’t think that will happen. The expert explained that drought is mostly a problem in the south of the country, which has been deforested for centuries.

At the same time, some people in the soy industry are starting to see fractures in the golden era they have been experiencing. They had been cultivating a plant with a gene that makes it resistant to herbicide glyphosate, but now that herbicide is working less and less. This leads them to have to develop another variety, and it becomes a never-ending cycle.

High-Altitude Soy

At the same time, investors are looking for new terrain, and looking at Colombia and its hills. “In 2011, we imported 300,000 tons of soy beans and 244,000 tons of soy oil. We need a domestic production of 1.9 million tons of soy to replace all the soy that we import,” said Napoleon Viveros, the executive director of a Colombian agricultural development foundation that is working to promote soy production.

For the moment, Colombia is a pygmy in terms of soy. The country has a lot of potential, but the Free Trade Agreement with the United States threatens to prevent a local soy boom, because it will be difficult to compete with the American soy giants.

At the same time, soy farmers are worried about what happens when the prices fall, and what happens when seed providers get too much market control. Farmers say that global mega-corporations have been buying local seed suppliers and will artificially raise the seed prices when they have total market control. As for the seed suppliers, they are trying to avoid, at all costs, farmers who save their own seeds.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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