A soybean field in the Cerrado plains in Mato Grosso state, Brazil.

Neat rows of soya beans grow in the Cerrado, a Brazilian region where about half of soya farms have cleared more land than is legally allowed. Credit: Asuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty

Conservation biology

The crop that’s gobbling up a vast Brazilian ecosystem

But all is not lost: targeted soya-bean planting could help to preserve the country’s species-rich savanna.

Soya-bean farming has destroyed enormous chunks of one of South America’s largest savannas — but an analysis of satellite data offers hope for this hotspot of biodiversity.

Brazil’s Cerrado is a vast tropical savanna covering some 200 million hectares, and is both a vital ecosystem and the nation’s breadbasket. Lisa Rausch at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and her colleagues combined imagery from multiple satellites to show that soya-bean fields replaced 22% of the native vegetation that was cleared in the Cerrado between 2003 and 2014. The data indicate that soya farms are five times more likely to contain illegally cleared land than are other types of property.

The researchers also identified roughly 23 million hectares of the Cerrado that have already been cleared of native vegetation and are suitable for growing soya beans. Policies that nudge soya farmers towards such surplus land could preserve the remaining native plants, the team says.