By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
The spiralling foreign demand for soya beans could mean the loss of millions of hectares of forest and savannah in South America, conservationists warn.
Jaguar habitat is threatened (Image: WWF-Canon/Michel Gunther)
WWF, the global conservation group, says nearly 22 million hectares (54m acres) could be destroyed by 2020.
But WWF says much of this land could be spared if soya farmers could agree to share their land with cattle ranchers.
It says the demand for soya exports, used mainly in animal feed, is expected to more than double within 20 years.
Gone beyond recall
A WWF report, Managing The Soy Boom: Two Scenarios Of Soy Production Expansion In South America, says the area cultivated for soya in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay has more than doubled since 1994.
It says soya plantations contributed to the near disappearance of the Atlantic Forest in southern Brazil and eastern Paraguay.
Soya imperils the maned wolf (Image: WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey)
The report says millions of hectares of Argentine's Chaco and Brazil's Cerrado - the world's most diverse savannah, home to animals found only in South America, like the anteater, jaguar and maned wolf - have also been converted into soya plantations.
Onwards and upwards
WWF says demand from the European Union and China for soya beans to feed cattle, pigs and chickens is stimulating the export trade.
The demand, it believes, is expected to increase by 60% in the next 20 years, imperilling a further 16m ha (40m acres) of savannah and 6m ha (15m acres) of tropical forests in the region.
The giant anteater lives only in South America (Image: WWF-Canon/Roger LeGuen)
But WWF says this could be reduced to an estimated 3.7m ha (9m acres) if soya producers leased pasture land from cattle ranchers and integrated their crops with cattle ranching in rotation.
Squaring the circle
It says field tests it has funded have shown rotation means improved soils, higher yields and increased stock density.
"The study shows that it is possible to achieve higher production of soya without destroying nature," said Matthias Diemer, head of WWF's Forest Conversion Initiative.
"The development of more intensive and efficient land use along existing roads and near important population centres will reduce the need to clear virgin habitats."
SOYA'S SPREADING FOOTPRINT
Soya accounts for about 70% of oil meals used in animal feed in Europe
Imports of Brazilian soya to the15 older European Union members require a cultivated area about the size of Ireland
Soya expansion threatens an area the size of Britain by 2020
But for this to work, WWF says, soya producers, investors, buyers, and regulators will have to support more sustainable practices, including encouraging the effective enforcement of environmental and land use regulations.
It says it is also urgent to adopt sourcing criteria and develop producer guidelines. In Switzerland the Coop supermarket chain and WWF are now establishing criteria for sustainable soya bean production.
Matthias Diemer said: "WWF will look for other companies to follow. As soya is one of the most sought-after crops in the world, it is crucial that consumers can eventually buy a product that does not contribute to the destruction of South America's natural wealth."