The soya curse: Is Ukraine facing the same fate as the Amazon?

Protein Plan and Green Deal

There are multiple reasons for the commission’s plan. Soya beans were previously used primarily to produce vegetable oils, but their market value rocketed when what remained after oil production started being used as a source of cheap protein in animal feed in the 1960s. Since then, the amount of soya grown worldwide has expanded sixfold. Most of it comes from the Americas and nearly half from Brazil and Argentina. Soya production in Brazil has quadrupled in 20 years.

But since the rise to power of President Bolsonaro and the Brazilian extreme Right in 2019, ever bigger swathes of the ecologically vulnerable Amazon rainforest are burned down to make way for soya plantations, highways are built through the ancestral forests of Indigenous peoples, and activists are increasingly targeted by loggers and farmers.

The EU Protein Plan was swiftly followed by the launch of the European Green Deal in 2019. This political masterplan to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050 has, among other things, made shifting protein production from environmentally unfriendly Brazil to Europe an even bigger priority. To this end, the European Commission is developing legislative proposals and targeted subsidies through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to stimulate European farmers to start planting legumes. To grow sufficient quantities of soya to feed the European livestock industry, the fertile soils in the east of the continent are crucial.

Friends of the Earth warns that too fast a shift will just move problems associated with soya cultivation in South America to countries in eastern Europe – where sustainability standards and legislative frameworks remain weak, and corruption is rife. There are increasing concerns about big farmers grabbing land, deforestation and pollution of the soil and water from the overuse of chemicals.

Ukraine is already Europe’s soya superpower, producing 3.9 millions tons per year – some way behind the global powerhouses of Brazil and the United States. Strings of murky land deals allowing Ukrainian conglomerates to grow to unprecedented sizes have strengthened calls from campaigners for the EU to remain cautious about increased dependency on Ukrainian or Romanian soya.

GM contamination

Exports of illegal GM soya from Ukraine into the EU are also a concern. Under current biosafety laws in Ukraine it is not allowed to grow unregistered GM crops. However, since there is no regulatory framework for approval and registration for GM technology, no genetically modified crops are allowed for cultivation.

However, field research by the Romanian NGO Agent Green and the Austrian government’s Environmental Institute shows that up to half of all soya exported from Ukraine could be illegally grown GM crops. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts it higher still: it estimates, on the basis of ‘industry rumours’, that up to 65% of all Ukrainian soya exports could be illegal. Research samples commissioned by the ecologically certified German supermarket Bio Landmarkt have also tested positive for GM contamination.

For Ukrainian seed merchant Volodymyr Onatskyi, this comes as no surprise: “We suspect that the first genetically modified soya was smuggled into Ukraine by a big poultry producer to grow cheaper fodder. Small farmers selling their produce on local markets are now surrounded by plantations growing GM soya, run by conglomerates. Farmers are starting to ask themselves how they will ever be able to pass on fertile soils to their children.”

Currently, there are no formal sanctions in place for farmers caught growing unregistered GM soya in Ukraine. While some traders choose to hire private agencies to check their cargos for GM contamination, customs checks at Ukrainian ports do not include inspecting for GM. A new draft law to regulate GM activities, presented to the Ukrainian parliament in August 2021, could better the chances for GM-free soya.

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