SCOTTISH scientists have sounded a warning about the future of the Amazon rainforest after research showed that President Trump’s trade sanctions on China have led to greater tree felling operations in Brazil.

China has huge demand for soya beans, and up until last year the Chinese government could depend on imports from the USA but the imposition of tariffs by Trump saw Chinese soya bean imports from the USA plunge to zero in November, 2018.

It was the first time since the trade war between the world’s two largest economies started that China, the world’s largest soya bean buyer, has imported no American supplies.

China bought in 5.07 million metric tons of soya beans from Brazil in November, up more than 80% from 2.76 million metric tons in the same month of 2017.

They turned to Brazil as it had a bumper crop last year and was able to make up the entire shortfall. But at what cost to the environment?

Now a team from Edinburgh University have joined with counterparts at the University Karlsruhe in Germany to warn of potentially devastating effects for the Amazon rainforest which contains half of all the rainforests in the world and is vital for the global environment.

According to their joint report in Nature magazine, pressure to fill China’s shortfall could see Brazil increase its land used for crop production by up to 39% – 13m hectares – according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Two decades of growth in the global soya bean market has already led to large-scale deforestation in Brazil’s rainforests.

The researchers add that political and legal controls that have prevented the expansion of soya bean production in the Amazon have recently been weakened. Deforestation increased by 29% between 2015 and 2016 and Brazil’s newly elected president has also removed the land rights of many indigenous people.

China’s Brazilian imports have increased by 2000% in the past two decades. The researchers say it is highly likely that China’s appetite for livestock feed and bioenergy will drive further increases.

By late 2018, 75% of China’s soya-bean imports came from Brazil, and with little prospect of China reducing its intake of soya beans, the academic study suggests a range of measures to ensure no further loss of the Amazon rainforest.

The researchers say China and the US should acknowledge their roles in driving tropical deforestation and remove trade tariffs on the crop. China could also seek a wider range of suppliers, including Argentina and Europe. They also urge Brazil to improve its environmental protection schemes by financially rewarding developers and businesses for not clearing forests.

Dr Peter Alexander of the School of Geosciences at Edinburgh said: “Governments, producers, regulators and consumers must act now. If they don’t, the Amazon rainforest could become the greatest casualty of the US–China trade war.”