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Thriving soy industry threatens the future of neotropical primates

  • The Amazon covers approximately 40% of South America.

  • Black and Gold howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) are just one of many species affected by the intense production of soybeans. 

  • Soya production is the leading cause for deforestation and habitat loss in the Amazon and surrounding rainforests

  • 3/4 of the world's soya is used for animal feed.

  • China and the EU are the largest importers of soy from South America.

  • Methods used to clear forests can have a lasting effect.

  •  Through lifestyle changes we can decrease the demand for soybean production

The Amazon covers eight countries in total 

As the morning chorus begins, the early morning south American sun attempts to peak through the dense sky of the rainforest canopy. The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon or Amazonia, covers some 40% of south America, unfolding over eight countries, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname. Residing in the tropics, the air is thick and sticky. This, however, doesn’t deter the abundant and diverse life of the forest from rising. A continuous buzz can be heard through the undergrowth, creating these noises is an array of insect species. A wealth of other creatures begins to stir at the same time, as birds call and chirp, and frogs croak and sing.


High in the upper level of the forest canopy a group of Black-and-Gold Howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) begin to wake, along with the rest of the forest. Living in troops of at least 16 monkeys, it is the males of the troop that have an important morning chore to complete. As each male holds their head high, the howlers chorus erupts from the canopy, resembling a prehistoric dinosaur. The dominant male of the group lets out an astonishingly loud howl which can be heard from up to three miles away. With the other males responding to one another, this is the perfect opportunity to decide where to forage for breakfast, and to warn neighbouring troops to stir clear.

However, as the Near Threatened (IUCN, 2021) Black-and-Gold Howler Monkeys go about their morning routine, no more than 20km away plans are in place to claim their home.

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Black-and-Gold Howler monkey (Alouatta caraya) facts sheet - designed by Joy Roberts-Chapple©


What is the problem?

The rainforests of South America, including the Amazon, is being destroyed at an alarming rate. As humans force trees from their roots, they simultaneously claim the lives of millions of threatened species. But what drives demand for the destruction of the Amazon and what can we do to prevent further rainforests from disappearing? Despite there being several contributors to the deforestation of rainforests in South America, the excessive conversion of once pristine rainforest to soybean plantations dominates above all else. So much so that soy plantations are the leading cause of habitat loss for wildlife in South America. But this production of soybeans is not necessarily for our direct consumption.

Three quarters of the world's soya is used for  animal feed

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Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 

Three quarters of the world’s soy is used for animal feed and is exported from countries like Brazil and Argentina to countries around the world. Between 70-75% of soybean exports are fed to an array of domestic animals including cows (for meat and dairy production), pigs, poultry and even farmed fish, all then sold for human consumption. The European Union (EU) (45%) and China (35%) are two key countries in which soybeans, produced (33% of exports) and crushed (62% of exports) in South America, are exported to. The EU imports a large amount, approximately 40 million tonnes a year, of soy for animal feed and biofuel. The US, Brazil and Argentina together produced 80% of the world’s soy in 2013, claiming millions of square feet of South American rainforest. This high production all comes down to an increase in the demand for cheap meat and dairy among the growing middle-class in emerging economies, which has increased the demand for animal feed.


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Rainforest to your plate - designed by Joy Roberts-Chapple©


What methods are used?

Methods used to strip rainforests for soybean plantations are also devastating. Companies will invade public lands to cut and remove high value trees. They will then clear the brush with tractors and after leaving the land for a few weeks to dry out, it is burned to make way for new pasture and cropland. In 2020, 2,500+ fires were recorded across Brazil’s Amazon. Many of these fires were on recently deforested lands, revealing the conversion of forests to pastures and croplands may just be the catalyst for these disastrous fires. Although a debated topic, an increase of forest fires in South America has previously been directly linked with agricultural practices. The fires also directly contribute to CO2 emissions (Climate Change & Primates, Coming Soon).


How does Forest Fragmentation Affect Pri

Method used to clear forests and prepare land for growing crops. 

How are primates affected?

So, how does the production of soybeans truly affect the primates of South America? The most obvious impact soybean production has upon neotropical primates is the direct destruction of their habitat. As soybean production continues, primates are either caught up in the chaos of deforestation or are forced into existing rainforests. Moving into different parts of the forest comes with its own pressures and threats. All primates inhabit an average home range. Some home ranges naturally overlap with other groups of the same species and different species; however, some species are highly territorial. With less forest to occupy, territories begin to overlap forming conflicts and pressure on food and sleeping sites. The destruction of primate habitats can also cause genetic problems. Neotropical primate populations are rapidly declining due to deforestation and with this comes the loss of genetic diversity.


The fragmentation of forests alters primates’ behaviours and opens them up to other risks. Forest fragmentation is ‘the degree to which forested areas are being broken into smaller patches and pierced or interspersed with non-forest cover’. A mosaic of forests is frequently caused by humans introducing obstacles, such as roads. All species of neotropical primates spend a large part of their day high up the tree canopy. From tree to tree, this is a primate’s mode of transport and the way in which they locate food, mates, and shelter. Fragmentation restricts movement of individuals for reproductive purposes, therefore, impacting the populations genetic diversity. Roads also open up new segments of forests allowing illegal activities to occur such as hunting and the capturing of monkeys for the pet trade.

Demand for soy within the EU uses an area of almost 15 million ha

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Download our FREE infographic on

5 Ways Forest Fragmentation Impacts Primates. 

How can you help?

You don’t need to be a qualified conservationist working in the field to contribute to primate conservation. Simple changes to your day-to-day life can have huge benefits to primate populations around the world. With an increase in the demand of produce such as soybeans being used for animal feed, rainforests throughout South America will continue to be destroyed. So, how can we reduce the demand in soybean production? It’s simple. Without the demand for dairy and meat products, there will not be a market for soybean production for animal feed. Practicing a plant-based diet, whether this be a full lifestyle change or practicing it regularly throughout your week, you can save millions of species. Alternatively, source your meat! By sourcing your meat from a local butcher, they should be able to provide you the full chain or production for that one animal… down to the grain. 


While there is still a demand in soybean production, habitats like the Black-and-Gold Howler Monkeys, will continue to be eradicated and we will continue to lose our closest living relatives.

practicing a plant-based diet decreases the demand for soy production


Article sources:

Article published and written by Joy Roberts-Chapple

Edited by Shannon Clark 

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