With the world chasing meat replacements, and a fair share of that coming from soy protein, a lot of people are scratching their heads wondering about the impact of increasing demand for soy products. After all, soy production is associated with habitat loss and deforestation in Latin America. So, on the whole – is soy sustainable?
If we look at the landscape of agricultural commodity producers, we will see it is made up of primarily business-to-business (B2B) companies. This means that the companies that sell agricultural commodities sell them primarily to other businesses, rather than directly to end consumers. Some of the biggest US-based commodity traders are companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. Cargill will sell commodities, like soybeans, soybean oil, or soy protein, to DuPont Nutrition & Health, rather than to your local grocery store.
Soy is a huge global crop. 80% of global soybean production goes to feed livestock, with 75% going to pigs and poultry. Its use as a meat replacement is increasing global demand for direct consumption of soybeans, for sure, but only 6% of global soybean production goes directly into foods for human consumption, like tofu. Though, it is worth pointing out that if you are eating soy as a meat replacement, your demand for meat will decrease, and if the meat you eat would have eaten soy feed, that would have a negative impact on demand for soy feed. That assumes a stagnant population, however, and as the global population is increasing, and meat consumption is increasing overall, we still expect to see demand for soybeans increasing in the future.
Brazil is the world’s largest soy producing country. 49% of soybeans exported from Brazil are linked to deforestation. In addition to the loss of forests, other critical habitats are being converted to agricultural production, having equally worrying consequences for biodiversity and soil health. Total habitat conversion, including deforestation and conversion of native vegetation across Brazil rose from 1.6 million hectares (Mha) in 2018 to 1.83Mha in 2020. In the Brazilian Amazon, land conversion for soybean production rose by ten fold from 2000 to 2019 (from 0.4 Mha to 4.6 Mha).
Roughly 50% of the soy produced in Brazil comes from a part of Brazil known as the Cerrado, which is mostly a savannah grassland, and therefore not well protected by deforestation pledges. The Cerrado is home to around 5% of all species on Earth, including over 10,000 species of plants. Habitat conversion in the Cerrado currently releases 230 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the environment annually.
There is some good news, however, in recent years. Trase data shows the amount of soy deforestation and land conversion decreased from 743,000 hectares (ha) in 2018 to 562,000 ha in 2020, despite the total area of soy being planted increasing over that time. In some areas, land previously converted for beef production is now being converted to soy cultivation. While it looks like habitat conversion associated with soybeans is decelerating, this is not to be confused with land conversion decreasing. We are still losing hundreds of thousands of hectares of land with high natural capital values every year. What deceleration indicates, hopefully, is that the tide is turning away from habitat conversion and towards repurposing of already degraded land. Even if it is, however, we certainly have a great deal more to do.
What can you do?
Unfortunately there is no simple answer as to whether soy production is sustainable overall or not. If it is produced responsibly, yes, it can be sustainable. If it is not produced responsibly, then, no, it is not. If you want to keep it simple and do your part to support responsible production of soy, don’t buy soybeans from Brazil if you can avoid it. But, the challenge you will run into is that you won’t necessarily know if the food you buy has Brazilian soybeans in its supply chain. Are you eating pork or poultry that was fed soy meal from soybeans unsustainably produced in Latin America? How will you know?
Generally speaking, Brazil’s production of soybeans is more likely to be a GMO crop (genetically modified organism), and very unlikely to be organic. Organic soybean production in Brazil makes up a very small proportion of total production. For organic livestock to achieve “organic” status, they have to be fed organic feed. Buying organic soy based products or organic livestock products will reduce the likelihood you are encouraging habitat loss in Brazil. It isn’t a guarantee, though, and certainly regulatory efforts to prevent habitat conversion and deforestation are also important. If you are in the UK, look for the RSPCA Assured stamp on the food that you buy. In 2021, the RSPCA guaranteed it would not permit the use of the RSPCA Assured label on products that contain soy from non-certified sources.
And, finally and importantly, encourage your government representatives to adopt deforestation legislation that is currently being considered in the UK & EU. If you live in a country that does not have global habitat loss legislation on the table, ask your representatives to consider it, and demand your grocery stores provide product traceability. If we get the appropriate labeling in place, and the technological tools exist to provide this, we can see the origin of all of the supply chain inputs that go into the food we consume.
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