Population and Natural Resources Case Study: How can food be produced sustainably to feed growing populations?
AAG Center for Global Geography Education

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Learning Objectives

By completing this case study, you will be able to:


1. Explain why soybeans are important as an agricultural commodity and as a source of nutrition.

2. Interpret the impacts of different systems of agricultural production on people and natural environments in Argentina.

3. Consider whether soybean production in Argentina is a sustainable form of agricultural development.





In 1948, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognized the fundamental right to nourishment.  In the decades that followed, implementation of Green Revolution technologies began to stimulate the growth of domestic food production in regions of the world that had previously imported the majority of their food. These technologies led many people to believe that the end to hunger was within reach —that all of the world's people would soon enjoy the fundamental right to nourishment.


Instead, expanding food production has barely kept pace with rapidly growing populations, and famine has continued to devastate regions characterized by periods of drought or civil unrest.  Some argue that the Green Revolution enabled this population growth, while others believe that increases in food production merely helped to avert mass food shortages in regions where populations were destined to expand anyway.


Hunger remains a serious problem in the 21st century. As of 2009, nearly one billion people suffer from hunger, malnutrition, or overall lack of food security.  The situation has become so severe that the United Nations called for a special assembly in September of 2008 to renew its commitment to combat extreme hunger and poverty.


Many believe that by the year 2025 the world population will reach 8.5 billion people, of which 83 percent will live in developing countries whose economies are dominated by agricultural production.  Greater numbers of people will put greater demand on natural resources.  To feed their growing populations, these countries will need to increase their production of food in ways that do not degrade the natural resources necessary for agriculture.


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Suggested citation: Kingsland, M. and Hamilton, M. 2010. Population & Natural Resources case study: How can food production be produced sustainably to feed growing populations? In Solem, M., Klein, P., Muñiz-Solari, O., and Ray, W., eds., AAG Center for Global Geography Education. Available from http://globalgeography.aag.org.

Theories of Malthus and Sauvy


Consider two theories on the relationship between population growth and food production. In the 19th century, the British political economist and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus argued that, if unchecked, populations grow exponentially, while food production increases arithmetically.  He believed that the root of malnourishment and poverty was an excess of people making unsustainable demands on natural resources. The solution, he argued, was to focus on limiting population growth, not on increasing human capacity to exploit natural resources.


In the 20th century, the French demographer Alfred Sauvy argued that malnourishment instead stems from an unequal distribution of natural resources.  He pointed out that during the 20th century, global food production grew faster than human populations, yet food shortages remained a major problem in many regions. Sauvy coined the term 'third world' to refer to these regions, implying that characteristics such as struggling economies, weak governments, and food shortages had resulted from exploitation of their natural resources by industrialized nations. 


Pause and Reflect 1: 

How do you think Malthus would explain recent food shortages,
considering that the Green Revolution dramatically boosted crop production?


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Food Production and Sustainable Development in Argentina


Argentina is one country that will experience population growth for the next several decades; current projections have the country's population growing from 40 million in 2009 to 47 million by 2025 (U.S. Census Bureau 2009). Grain production and ranching represent a major sector in Argentina's economy, and the country has historically been an important agricultural producer. In the mid-19th century, during a period known as the Great Migration, thousands of Europeans came to Argentina and the majority settled in the countryside.  They brought with them methods and technologies characteristic of the 18th century British agricultural revolution.  These immigrants adapted their form of agriculture to the Argentine countryside.


Agriculture is especially important in Argentina because of the country's valuable natural resources.  In addition to its wealth in minerals, fisheries and forests, Argentina has been endowed with a very large fertile region — the Pampas — characterized by some of the most agriculturally productive land in the world.  The Pampas covers most of Uruguay and the southern tip of Brazil, as well as the Argentine provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa, Santa Fe, and Córdoba.  The region's mild climate is well suited for agriculture, with an average of 600 mm (23.6 in) to 1200 mm (47.2 in) of rainfall distributed fairly uniformly throughout the year.  Land in the Pampas is known for its deep, rich soils.


Figure 1 shows the regions of Argentina where soybean cultivation accounts for a high percentage of overall land cover. Figure 2 shows the extent of the Pampas ecological zone. Consider both maps: How does the zone of soy cultivation compare with the historic extent of the Pampas grassland?



Figure 1. Argentina: Soybean Production, 2000

Source: Sparks Companies Inc. (2002) 




Figure 2. Pampas Region of Argentina

Source: Miramón (2004)


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Growth of Soybean Production in Argentina


Over time, rural landholders in Argentina have farmed the land more and more intensively.  One of the most land-intensive crops is soy, which serves as an important source of vegetable oil and is also one of the main ingredients in food products such as soy sauce, tofu, and soymilk.  Soybeans are also used to manufacture animal feed and they serve as a raw material for generating biofuels.


Argentina is one of the world's largest exporters of soybeans.  Figure 3 shows the top five soybean producing countries. These countries are also very large in area and have large populations.  In fact, four are among the five countries with the largest population in the world. The exception is Argentina, much further down the population rank at number 32.



Figure 3. Global Soybean Exports (Projected to 2019)

Source: USDA (2009)


Argentina ranks third in the world in soybean production. Considering its relatively small population of 40 million people (compared to the other four top soybean producing countries, which have populations ranging from 190 million to 1.3 billion people), one might expect it to export the vast majority of its soybean production. But this is not the case. In fact, Argentina also ranks third in worldwide soybean consumption.  One major source of soybean consumption is Argentina's large cattle industry. More than 80% of Argentina's soybeans are processed into animal feed.


Figure 4 shows the production of three major crops in Argentina over time. While maize (corn) and wheat production has increased steadily since 1980, soybean production has grown the most dramatically. Remember that Malthus argued that food production can only increase arithmetically.



Figure 4. Production of Soybeans, Wheat and Maize in Argentina

(millions of tons)

Source: FAO (2007)


Pause and Reflect 2: 

Would you regard the growth of soybean production as an exponential increase in food production?


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Social and Environmental Effects


Production of soybeans has grown to represent a large sector of Argentina's economy.  In addition to its large and growing economic influence, soybean cultivation has also extended across a vast region of Argentina's agricultural land base.  Geographic concepts can help us consider the effects of soybean farming on natural resource management, conservation of biodiversity, and the protection of ecosystem services.  Because of specific environmental characteristics such as soil type, temperature and rainfall, certain regions of the country are best suited for growing soybeans.  But just as Argentina's natural environment strongly influences soybean farming, this form of land use also affects Argentina's natural environment.


Let's consider four important characteristics of soybean cultivation:

1. Most soybean cultivation in Argentina relies on genetically engineered (GE) seed varieties that have been developed to resist the chemical glyphosate, a strong herbicide that is used to reduce competition from weeds in the soy fields.

2. GE crop varieties allow farmers to repeatedly spray their fields with this herbicide because they know it will kill weeds but not the soybean plant. 

3. Soy is a 'heavy feeder' — it requires substantial nutrient input in order to produce high quality beans.

4. Because it is possible to completely mechanize soybean cultivation (for example, to use tractors and other machines to plant, weed, harvest, and process the crop), soybean fields often extend over many hundreds of acres. Small farmers who grow or raise a variety of crops or livestock find themselves unable to compete with the encroachment of soybean agriculture, and as a result many have been forced to sell their land to large neighboring farms and move to urban areas.


Soybeans can also be used as a source of raw material for the production of biofuel. The Kyoto Protocol, signed and ratified by Argentina in 2001, recognizes biofuels as an important alternative energy. To produce fuel from soybeans, manufacturers use the seed's oil, which makes up 20% of the weight of the plant. The remaining 80% is used to produce soy meal, which is a major ingredient in animal feed.  Argentina has recently taken steps to boost its production of soybean-derived biofuel, most notably through the passage of legislation in 2006 that applied tax incentives to encourage farmers to grow crops that can be used to make biofuel. 


Any rapid shift in land use, such as the consolidation of vast tracts of farmland into soybean fields, has important social and environmental effects. In the last 30 years, land under soybean cultivation has expanded from 0.01 million to over 14 million hectares in Argentina (Joensen and Semino 2004). Production of soybeans is most profitable when large tracts are planted in one single crop regime, known as monoculture.


In addition to the environmental consequences of converting vast expanses of land to monoculture, the growth of Argentina's soybean production has had significant demographic and social effects.  Smallholder farmers who had previously produced a variety of crops and livestock sold their land to foreign companies that consolidated these tracts into larger farms.  Industrial agriculture is much less labor intensive than the methods of production used on smaller farms.  Together, these two factors have displaced farm owners and laborers, who have mostly relocated to urban areas.  Many have been unable to find jobs, and unemployment has become a serious problem in certain regions of Argentina.  Additionally, many members of the Wichí, an indigenous group from the northeastern Argentine provinces of Chaco, Formosa and Salta, have sold their lands to big soybean producers and have moved to large cities such as Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe.  Without a land base, the Wichí now struggle to preserve their cultural identity.


Pause and Reflect 3: 

If Argentina does raise its biofuel production from soybeans, how will this affect the price of soy meal?

What sorts of indirect effects might that have on other sectors of Argentina's agricultural economy, such as the cattle industry?

Why is the increase of soybean production potentially an unsustainable practice?


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Policy Guidance


Let us return to the issue of malnutrition, which has led us to consider patterns of population growth, land use, and sustainability in Argentina. One Argentine researcher has argued that his country has "lost its food sovereignty by concentrating on a few commodities for agro-export without an added value. Poor people cannot afford a diverse diet any more. The protein basis of their meals was changed from high-quality meat proteins to soy protein. Of Argentine children, 20% show signs of malnutrition" (Pengue 2005). Argentina has valuable soil and other agriculturally important natural resources. The nation's population will grow by several million people between now and 2025, but this increase alone will not burden Argentina's natural environment in ways representative of more rapidly growing populations in other countries. We must therefore assume that current and future malnutrition issues in Argentina stem at least in part from large-scale systems of food production and region-wide decisions regarding land use.


In response to alarming trends in food security and the environmental sustainability of Argentina's land base, researchers have proposed a number of policy guidelines, such as:

- Increasing anti-trust enforcement to slow the consolidation of massive industrial farming operations.

- Mandating crop rotations with maize, wheat, and other traditional crops, in order to produce more food for domestic consumption.

- Directing research and extension towards developing technology and methods of sustainable production on smaller farms (Pérez 2008). 


Pause and Reflect 4: 

With what you know about Argentina and soybean production, can you think of other possible ways to address the issue of food security and environmental sustainability?


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This case study considered the social and environmental ramifications of the growth of soybean production in Argentina.  The crop and its many byproducts serve as an important source of nourishment for much of the world's people. Soybeans are also a source of energy and a major ingredient in animal feed.  Over the last few decades, Argentina has become a principal producer, consumer, and exporter of soybeans.  Because such vast tracts of Argentina's territory are now under soybean cultivation, the growth of this form of land use has changed the makeup of Argentine society and the quality of its natural environment.


Geographic thinking helps us analyze these effects.  Geography helps us account for trends in population growth, demographic composition, regional migration and land use.  A geographic perspective enables us to link these trends and tackle complicated issues such as hunger and malnutrition.



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FAO Statistics Division. 2007. Food and Agricultural Commodities Production. Available at http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx (accessed 2 July 2009).

Joensen, L. and S. Semino. 2004. Argentina's torrid love affair with the soybean. Seedling (GRAIN), October. Excerpt from L. Joensen, S. Semino and H. Paul (2005) Argentina: Case Study on the Impact of RoundUp Ready Soya, Brighton, UK, Rural Reflection Group, Argentina and EcoNexus UK, March. Available at http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=302 (accessed 1 July 2009).

Miramón, E. 2004. Nuestro ambiente: la Llanura Pampeana. Available at http://www.campamentoseducativos.com/eco_pampa.php (accessed 2 July 2009).

Pengue, W. 2005. Transgenic crops in Argentina: the ecological and social debt. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(4): 314-322. Available at http://bch.cbd.int/database/attachedfile.aspx?id=1538 (accessed on 18 June 2009).

Pérez, M., S. Schlesinger, and T. Wise. 2008. The Promise and the Perils of Agricultural Trade Liberalization. Washington Office on Latin America and the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. Available at http://www.holycrossjustice.org/pdf/ThePromiseandthePerilsofAgriculturalTrade.pdf (accessed 2 July 2009).

Sparks Companies, Inc. 2002. Argentina Soy Production 2000. Available at http://www.informaecon.com/CropMaps2001/ArgentineSoybeanProduction2000.gif (accessed 2 July 2009).

United Nations. 1987. Our Common Future. Available at http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm (accessed 1 July 2009).

U.S. Census Bureau Population Division. 2009. International Data Base Country Rankings. Available at http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/ranks.php (accessed 2 July 2009).

USDA Economic Research Service. 2009. Agricultural Projections to 2018. Available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/baseline/trade.htm (accessed 2 July 2009). 



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