Soy is often thought to be a key component in a sustainable diet. As a staple in most vegetarian and vegan diets because of its different plant-based nutritional benefits, soy and soy products are considered a “greener” alternative to “animal agriculture”, which accounted for approximately 14.5 percent to 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. But following beef, soy is the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation.
Between 2001 and 2004 soy was thought to have directly caused 17% of total global forest loss. In addition to deforestation, the third-largest global emitter, soy production is also associated with high rates of soil erosion and water contamination due to the high amounts of agrochemicals and fertilizers needed for production. That said, given a diet choice between the two, soy is more the sustainable option over meat—it can be grown sustainably and organically, and, unlike ruminant livestock, it doesn’t emit methane (30 times more potent than carbon dioxide). That, however, would be if soy was simply grown for human consumption. Ironically, only about 6% of soybeans grown worldwide are used for food products directly for human ingestion; roughly 70-75% ends up as feed for “animal agriculture”. It is only expected to increase with a growing global demand for meat and China almost doubling its demand for soy in recent years; the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that soy production will rise to 390 million metric tons by 2050, up from 276 million metric tons in 2013. It will likely be the United States, Brazil, and Argentina who fill that demand with other South American countries like Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay joining the game.
The United States, Brazil, and Argentina produce 80% of the world’s soy with global production increasing more than fifteen times over since the 1950s. While farms for soy production in the United States have largely been converted from pre-existing agricultural land, thereby having little effect on forests, soy has been the cause of high rates of deforestation in South America, specifically Brazil. Until the 1970s, tropical forest soils, like that of the Amazon basin and the Cerrado woodlands in Brazil, were not viable for soy production. That changed with advancements in farming methods, fertilizers, GMOs, and crop varieties, enabling Brazil to become the second leading soybean producing country in the world. In Brazil, forestland is usually first cleared for cattle ranching then pastures are in turn converted to soy farms. Some analysts fear that the increased global soy demand and the resulting expansion of soy farms may displace pastures into forested areas, indirectly contributing to deforestation even more.
In 2006, on a more positive note, pressure from non-governmental organizations (led by Greenpeace) and retailers led to the first voluntary zero-deforestation agreement in the tropics when the world’s major soybean traders agreed to not purchase soy grown on deforested lands (or farms using indentured or forced labor). Between 2005 and 2014, following the “Soy Moratorium” as it was coined, deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon basin dropped by 70%, preventing approximately 3.2 million tons of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the coordinated effort by the Brazilian government to enforce deforestation laws in the Amazon are under threat following the election of the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who ignorantly believes economic development and environmental protection are at odds.
Soy is in demand, as evidenced by the doubling of global soy production since 2000, and that likely won’t change in the years to come. With slow governmental responses at odds with the growing global demand for soy with all its environmental hazards the responsibility for sustainable and responsible soy production will likely fall on corporations, consumers, and investors. Areas identified as having a high conservation value should be avoided in favor of using available degraded land. Responsible purchasing and feedback by consumers can cue corporations to do better. Responsible investment policies can lead the way. NGOs such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund can continue their work and joint-efforts to require producers to adopt production standards that protect the environment. Hopefully this will be enough until legislation catches up. Now, more than ever, the responsibility of sustainability and ethical environmental standards will fall on the shoulders of individuals and corporations as some countries cling to the ruinous, false comfort of climate change denial. Soy production is as good a place as any to put that responsibility into fruition.