Tracking soybeans


The Trase platform, on which Patrick Meyfroidt and his team of researchers collaborate, is unique: it aims to retrace the channels of the main agricultural products responsible for deforestation. Once the channels are retraced, producers, traders, processors and distributors can no longer say, ‘We didn’t know’. Trase has just published a first summary on the production of soybeans in Brazil.

More and more associations, individuals and companies want to know the origin of commodities used in making finished products – a laudable desire, but it’s very difficult to satisfy, because the commercial channels are most often opaque. Yet an internet platform, Trase, is beginning to lift the veil. Its goal is to improve traceability and transparency in the sectors of products with high environmental and social impact, such as deforestation, in tropical countries. It’s no surprise that targeted commodities include soybeans, palm oil, beef, cocoa and coffee.

Two institutions drive Trase: the Stockholm Environment Institute, an environmental research institution that supports political and economic decision-makers, and Global Canopy, an English NGO that aims to protect tropical forests. Other partners, including universities such as UCL, contribute their expertise without providing project leadership.

A participant since the project’s start in 2013, Patrick Meyfroidt, an FNRS research associate at UCL’s Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research, continues to define the platform and reflect on its use, while two researchers on his team are fully involved in data construction and analysis. ‘We only work from publicly available data’, he explains. ‘So we don’t need the agreement of companies or states and can work independently. Collecting, analysing and cross-checking these data will allow us to track these products on a relatively fine scale.’


Take Brazilian soybeans, which is the subject of the first ‘yearbook’ published by Trase (see box). It’s a textbook case, firstly, because of the sector’s size (the country will probably be the world's largest producer this year), secondly because Brazil has an excellent public data network, which has made it easier for researchers. ‘We started with production data from municipalities. From there, we followed the channels to export ports and then countries of consumption by tracking the trading companies. For now, we stop there. The ideal would be to specify the soybeans’ freighter, arrival date, port and destination, and final product. But for now it’s impossible.’

This lack of ultimate precision, however, shouldn’t devalue the immense work performed by Trase researchers. Knowing the importing companies forces companies well-known by consumers (processors such as Danone, distributors such as Carrefour, etc.) to stop taking refuge behind the convenient defence: ‘We don’t know where our soybeans come from, it’s too complicated.’ Trase has all the necessary data to retrace the channel back to the place of production. This is obviously crucial information, because it’s then possible to calculate the number of deforested hectares, the amount of carbon emissions, the number of children put to work, etc.

Stopping deforestation

As we’ve seen, one of Trase's objectives is to stop deforestation. More and more companies are committed to doing so, to varying degrees. ‘Before the platform, there were no tools to check whether these companies kept their commitments. Especially since companies occupy very different positions in the channels: if you’re a soybean producer, you can verify what you’re doing. But companies far downstream such as Danone and Nestlé, or even resellers such as Carrefour, had no clear way of verifying compliance with their commitments. Trase offers them a tool to verify where each actor is.’ The platform doesn’t certify, or assign good or bad points. And it’s not intended to take the place of environmental companies or associations, but the data is theirs to use.

The researchers’ work with soybeans continues, in Argentina and Paraguay. They’re also working with palm oil in Indonesia and coffee in Colombia. They are otherwise encountering two major difficulties. One is geographical: Africa is largely absent because of the almost complete lack of public data. The other concerns two particular products: livestock and tropical timber. Livestock because it is more mobile than a crop; tropical timber because of illegal logging that cannot be tracked.

However, livestock farming is the field of one UCL research team member, Erasmus zu Ermgassen, lead author of the ‘zero deforestation’ chapter of the 2018 Trase yearbook, who, as part of his postdoctorate, is trying to apply the method to cattle herds in South America. Dr Meyfroidt explains, ‘It's difficult because most breeders specialise in certain parts of the animal's life: some specialise in reproduction, others only raise calves, etc. So cattle are sold several times within one country, especially since there are also many sales of herds to escape taxes, fines, etc. So we basically start from health data and data provided by slaughterhouses.’

The second UCL researcher working for the platform is the Brazilian PhD student Tiago Reis. His task is to analyse soybean data from another angle. Dr Meyfroidt says, ‘We’ve seen that some companies are very stable over time: each year they buy their soybeans from the same producers, export via the same port, etc. Others switch channels every time. Why? It’s important to understand this difference in behaviour because good governance of the sector will depend on stability: it’s indeed easier to follow the commitments of companies that have a stable profile.’

New frontier

By publishing a first virtual yearbook devoted to the Brazilian soybean sector, Trase officials wanted to turn their data into more accessible stories for the general public. Readers will discover chapters on the trade’s main actors, the risk of deforestation related to their activities, consumer market behaviour, etc. Readers will also learn a little known fact: the very notion of deforestation, at least as understood by the general public, has evolved.

‘In the Brazilian Amazon,’ Dr Meyfroidt explains, ‘the peak of deforestation was reached in 2004, then there was a sharp decrease, particularly because of pressure on companies and because Brazil implemented government policies. Since 2015, deforestation has increased again, but, more important, since 2000, it has spread into the Cerrado and Gran Chaco regions, the latter also covering parts of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.’ This is no longer Amazonian tropical rainforest but savannah and dry forest, which are often considered less important in terms of climate and biodiversity, but that is likely not the case, because these biotopes have rarely been studied and therefore remain largely unknown. Regardless, soybeans have found a new frontier, so it’s a matter of continuing the work.

Henri Dupuis

France covered in soybeans
The first of its kind, the Trase Yearbook 2018 focuses on Brazil’s soybean sector. It shows the extent of what is probably a little known phenomenon: the crop’s explosive growth and its consequences for the environment.
World soybean production increased from 27 million tonnes in 1961 to 335 million tonnes in 2016 – a rise in parallel to that of livestock farming, as soybeans are mainly used in animal feed.
In Brazil (29% of world production in 2016, but it will probably overtake the US as leading producer this year with more than one-third of world production), soybean cultivation covers an area comparable to that of France, yet only six companies account for 57% of Brazilian soybean exports (60% destined for the Chinese market). These six companies are thus directly associated with two-thirds of the risk of deforestation linked to the future increase in production. According to Trase, some 10 million hectares of the Cerrado (savannah and dry forest region) will be converted for soybeans. Finally, the Trase Yearbook 2018 explores the impacts of zero deforestation commitments made by some companies and European countries. It states that ‘even though these commitments are very promising, there are still few signs of change on the ground, with similar levels of deforestation risk for companies and countries with zero deforestation commitments as for those without them.’.

A glance at Patrick Meyfroidt's bio

2000: Master’s Degree in Geography, UCL
2001: Postgraduate, Human Ecology, VUB.
2001-03: Assistant Researcher, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, UCL
2003: DEA, Sociology, UCL
2004-09: PhD, Geography, UCL
2010-11: Postdoctoral Researcher, TECLIM, UCL
2013: Visiting Researcher, Stockholm Resilience Centre
2011-16: FNRS Postdoctoral Researcher, Georges Lemaître Earth and Climate Research Centre, UCL
2016-present: FNRS Research Associate, Georges Lemaître Earth and Climate Research Centre, UCL



Published on August 09, 2018