From: Smithsonian Tropial Research Institute
Published January 8, 2008 09:35 AM

Corn... fuel... fire! U.S. corn subsidies promote Amazon deforestation

Amazon deforestation and fires are being aggravated by US farm subsidies, claims STRI’s staff scientist William Laurance.

According to Laurance, whose findings are reported this week in Science (December 14), a recent spike in Amazonian fires is being promoted by massive US subsidies that promote American corn production for ethanol. The ethanol is being blended with gasoline as an automobile fuel.

"American taxpayers are spending $11 billion a year to subsidize corn producers—and this is having some surprising global consequences," said Laurance.

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The US is the world's leading producer of soy, but many American soy farmers are shifting to corn to qualify for the government subsidies. Since 2006, US corn production rose 19% while soy farming fell by 15%.

The drop-off in US soy has helped to drive a major increase in global soy prices, which have nearly doubled in the last 14 months. In Brazil, the world's second-largest soy producer, high soy prices are having a serious impact on the Amazon rainforest and tropical savannas.

"Amazon fires and forest destruction have spiked over the last several months, especially in the main soy-producing states in Brazil," said Laurance. "Just about everyone there attributes this to rising soy and beef prices."

High soy prices affect the Amazon in several ways. Some forests are cleared for soy farms. Farmers also buy and convert many cattle ranches into soy farms, effectively pushing the ranchers further into the Amazonian frontier. Finally, wealthy soy farmers are lobbying for major new Amazon highways to transport their soybeans to market, and this is increasing access to forests for loggers and land speculators.

Laurance emphasized that he was not the first person to suggest that US corn subsidies could indirectly harm the Amazon. "But now we're seeing that these predictions-first made last summer-are being borne out. The evidence of a corn connection to the Amazon is circumstantial, but it's about as close as you ever get to a smoking gun."

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