The roundtable is a WWF-led initiative to encourage the sustainable production of soya. It follows a similar initiative on palm oil - another rapidly expanding cash crop which is having significant impacts on forests in developing countries (ENDS Report 357, p 38 ).
The soya boom in South America is driven by demand from Europe and China for soya meal for animal feed and soya oil for human consumption. Demand is expected to increase by 60% in the next 20 years resulting in the conversion of millions of hectares of forest and savannah to agriculture.
In 2004, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest reached its second highest level ever. Forest is cleared to accommodate cattle ranching and subsistence farming. Soya farming companies buy the land, providing money for ranchers and smallholders to clear more forest.
WWF says that if existing soya plantations and cattle ranching were integrated and managed efficiently, the need to expand would be greatly reduced.
Cargill has been criticised by Greenpeace for recently opening a huge soya terminal in Santarem, Brazil, on the frontier between the rainforest and the soya plantations.
A Cargill spokeswoman denied the plant helped drive deforestation but admitted the company does not require Brazilian farmers who supply the new plant to comply with laws protecting the rainforest.
The company's 2003 "citizenship" report contains no information on the impacts of its soya business. The report claims that citizenship - which it defines as including ethical business practices and environmental protection - "has long been part of Cargill's values".
Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth Brazil, said he was not surprised by Cargill's admission, and that rival agricultural processors ADM and Bunge also supplied soya grown illegally on protected land. ENDS invited ADM and Bunge to comment but both failed to respond.
Other key players are showing little interest in controlling the impacts of soya production. Tony Bell, raw material director from BOCM Pauls, one of the UK's largest suppliers of animal feed, said that, although the company was aware of the issue, it was "not in a position to do anything about it."
In contrast, Swiss food retailer Coop has developed the Basel criteria for responsible soy production. The criteria, now being tested, prohibit the conversion of areas of "high conservation value".
The roundtable's first meeting was in Brazil in March. The body is led by an organising committee of seven members including WWF, Unilever and Coop.
Despite two days of discussion among over 200 delegates from agriculture, business and government, progress was disappointing, according to Jan Kees Vis, Unilever's sustainable agriculture programme coordinator.
The organisers had hoped to begin developing criteria for the sustainable production of soya - the basis of a certifiable standard - as is being done for palm oil. The criteria are intended to serve as best practice for growers. Suppliers' operations could be verified as conforming to the criteria by an independent third party, while buyers could specify the criteria as a condition in contracts.
Mr Vis said the conference was sidetracked by discussion of Brazil's decision last year to allow the introduction of genetically modified soya, with only a brief statement on the need to continue the process agreed. The roundtable is to meet again in August.
Meanwhile, the roundtable on palm oil has produced a second draft of criteria for sustainable palm oil production.1 The criteria, due to be finalised in November, include a requirement that new soya plantings "have not replaced" primary forest or any area of high conservation value.
The next step, said Unilever's Mr Vis, is to decide how the potential future trade in certified palm oil could work without creating an expensive bureaucracy. Issues include how to address mixing of certified and uncertified crops during processing and whether there is consumer demand for a labelling scheme. These are the subject of a study being conducted by consultancy Proforest, which has done much work on timber certification.
Much work also needs to be done to get more companies in the soya supply chain involved in the roundtable, Mr Vis said.
Cargill is taking part in a project run by American environmental group The Nature Conservancy, to develop a voluntary best practice programme for the 150 soya farmers who supply the Santarem plant.
The first step will be to ensure farmers comply with Brazilian legislation aimed at conserving areas of rainforest.
A Cargill spokeswoman said that "the goal is only to buy from farmers who are in legal compliance or who are looking to get there." However, Cargill could not say when it will achieve this goal. No other targets have been set to measure the success or failure of the scheme.
Cargill has yet to decide whether to join the soya roundtable, despite already being a member of WWF's sister initiative on palm oil.