The following essay was commissioned by Gallery 400 for the initial exhibition of The Earth Will Not Abide.

Introduction by Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400) & Ryan Griffis

The Earth Will Not Abide borrows its title from the concluding remarks of the 1987 book Land Degradation and Society, an early example of political ecology—the study of relationships between political, economic, and social factors in environmental issues and changes—as an analytical method. The authors frame land degradation—the loss of a land’s ability to sustain life—as a social problem, both the result and cause of social inequalities. In their conclusion, they argue that land does not give of itself freely: what is taken from it, must be returned.

Only an hour’s drive outside of Chicago is evidence of the large swaths of land in the US Midwest that are devoted to industrial corn and soybean farms. The ecosystems and ways of life replaced by these farms are difficult to discern, having been plowed under and marginalized over a century ago. In the essay below, Gustavo Oliveira—a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of California at Berkeley whose dissertation focuses on Chinese investments in Brazilian agribusiness and related infrastructure—discusses the more recent expansion of industrial agriculture in large parts of South America where the cost of this change in land use is still visible and felt.

Gustavo Oliveira,  PhD candidate in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley

Soy has become one of the most important agro-industrial commodities in the world. It is processed into food, livestock feed, biofuels, and hundreds of industrial products, and drives one of the most rapid landscape changes of the last 30 years. First brought to South America for agronomic experiments during the 19th century, soy production now covers over 58 million hectares there. This is well above the 33 million hectares of soy farmed in the US, and more than the entire area of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Vermont combined. In fact, there is more soy now in South America than on any other continent; and South American farmers are responsible for 56 percent of global production and 60 percent of total global soy exports. There are serious questions, however, about the environmental and social costs of this boom in soybean monocultures.

This soy boom has been promoted as a solution to rising food demand, a means of modernizing undeveloped territories, and producing industrial inputs in a supposedly sustainable manner. But the expansion of soy production is predicated not only on the extension of capital and chemical intensive agro-industrial practices into areas historically occupied by other grains and pastures, such as southern Brazil and the Argentinian pampas, but also into areas that were considered marginal for this kind of production system. These include the fringes of the Amazon and the Cerrado grasslands in Brazil, Paraguay’s lowland forests, and even the Bolivian and Argentinean Chaco forests. By converting huge tracts of some the world’s most complex ecosystems, with 600 to 6,000 species per hectare, into a monoculture that generates few jobs, soybean agribusiness both reduces biodiversity and displaces poor farmers whose livelihoods came from forest products, livestock, and small-scale food production for domestic markets.

These negative impacts occur across multiple scales. At the local level, peasants are displaced and agrochemicals generate problematic levels of human and environmental poisoning. At the regional level, deforestation and contamination of water sacrifice biodiversity and erase entire ecosystems, including the Amazon transition zones, and far more significantly, the Cerrado grasslands of Brazil, over half of which have been cleared over the last few decades. The Paraguayan and Bolivian forests are also being rapidly cleared to make way for more soy. Given the impacts on migrating birds, fishes, and other species, these regional effects affect far more land than even the millions of hectares of direct conversions, and also sit at the heart of the intensifying carbon emissions from agricultural machinery, fertilizer use, and concentrated livestock fed on soy meal.

The idea that soy might serve as a solution to rising food demand masks the difference between agroindustrial commodities and food itself, ignoring the fact that the soy boom attends food production only indirectly through livestock feed, and non-food demands for fuel and industry. Less than six percent of all soy produced in the world is consumed directly as human food, and virtually all of it in South America is crushed to produce livestock feed for concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), edible oil, and biodiesel, its most important new market. Detailed analyses and calculations of productivity unequivocally demonstrate that grain- and soy-based CAFOs are extremely inefficient ways to producing protein for human food, and soy-based biodiesel is only carbon efficient when produced in small-scale, diversified farming systems.

Soy is no simple staple crop. It is an agro-industrial feedstock, a complex assemblage of technologies and techniques for the flexible implementation of its production across highly variable landscapes, a global network of farms, machinery, warehouses, trucks and ships channeling commodity flows to multiple markets around the world. It exemplifies the imagined benefits of agro-industrial modernization, but also its alarming social and ecological problems, as it undermines social justice and environmental sustainability, linking soybean farmers and consumers around the world under the thumb of a highly concentrated set of institutions and transnational agribusiness corporations. Important though soy may be, these problems are not limited to this crop alone. They make us question the very logic of modernization, the role of the state, the politics of food and applied science, and the reach of corporate power in daily life. And above all, they encourage us to search and struggle for agroecological alternatives.

—Gustavo Oliveira, 2017