• Content Committee

The Truth About Soy

written by Gautam


Soybeans are a kind of legume with origins tracing back to East Asia. While for most of its history it was only widely consumed in East Asia, it has seen a huge rise in popularity worldwide over the last century. It is not only used to make soy sauce and tofu, but it is also an essential industrial and agricultural commodity. Today, we grow over 15 times the amount of soybeans that we did around 50 year ago. The gravity has shifted westward with the USA and South America producing over 80% of the world’s supply. This explosion in demand and production has come at the expense of the rainforests. The large-scale deforestation to create space for soy plantations is erasing large expanses of valuable virgin forests and the flora and fauna that call it home. There are numerous secondary effects too, including topsoil erosion and contamination of the water table, amongst others.

So you might be wondering… who eats tofu and drinks soy milk? Vegetarians and vegans of course! Surely they are to blame. But wait, it is far more complicated than that.


A common stereotype and misconception is that the boom in soy consumption can be directly attributed to the rising popularity for soy-based foods that vegans and vegetarians use in place of animal-based foods. What you might not know, is that of all the soy grown, only 6% of it is converted into soy foods. Where does the rest of it go? 80-90% of the soy grown worldwide is used as feed for farmed animals. This is by far the largest driver of demand for soy.


Farmed animals ranging from pigs and cows, to poultry and farmed fish are fed soy. Fish? Really? Yes, and that is because it is cheaply sourced and protein dense, promoting the fast animal growth that farmers seek. Without realising it, the average European resident consumes a whopping 61kg of soy indirectly through the meat, fish and dairy they eat and drink.


Therein lies the irony. Due to the inefficiency of animal farming, soybeans are consumed in much larger quantities as ghost-ingredients than as actual tofu. In addition to this, the kind of soy grown for animal feed tends to have a much larger environmental impact than the varieties grown for direct human consumption. So, what are the actual environmental impacts of soy? Let us have a look:


Deforestation and habitat destruction


The soy plant has two crucial characteristics when it comes to farming it. First, it is an annual crop, meaning it produces only a single yield each year. Second, the plants are known to fix the soil with nitrogen themselves and as a result do not respond to using additional fertilisers. So, when the yield is relatively small per land area, and the productivity cannot be easily improved, the end result is the need to plant more soy on more land. With soy being most acclimated to warmer climates, it begins to compete with the other plant growth that suits warm climates: rainforests and prairies. Large areas of forest are lost to create soybean plantations, ranking it second in the drivers for agricultural deforestation, right after cattle ranching.


Soy-driven deforestation is most prevalent in South American nations such as Brazil and Argentina, where a total area about 14 times the size of The Netherlands is used to grow soy, as of 2018. This has devastating effects on the ecosystems and species native to these regions. The rising demand for soy has likely pushed the numbers higher.


The scenes in David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet paint a bleak picture of the situation in the Amazon. Huge expanses of some of the most biodiverse land on earth are being cleared as you read this. The limited protection that these areas receive and the weak penalties for deforestation almost encourage their conversion to farmland. The vibrant Cerrado region of Brazil, for example, is under threat. The forest code allows for 70% of the land area to be cleared legally, leaving only 30% for conservation activities.


At current rates, it is projected that entire regions of forest, along with the species living in them will be lost by 2050.


CO2 emissions


Beyond the impact on local habitats, soy production also contributes to global climate change. Destroying forest land removes vital sinks for carbon-dioxide. The Amazon alone, for example, is able to sequester 600 million tons of CO2 every single year. Moreover, this does not even include all the carbon trapped in the vegetation, that when cleared is released into the atmosphere. This is exacerbated by the means by which the land is typically cleared, burning, which releases carbon dioxide, and other harmful combustion derived fumes and particles.


The global trade of soybeans being shipped across the globe, such as from Brazil to China also accounts for a significant source of emissions.


It is important to make the distinction between the true reason for these emissions, however. This again ties back to how we eat the soy, whether it is directly in the form of soy-based foods, or whether it is indirectly via the feed given to farmed animals. Eating a serving of tofu twice a week leads to a contribution of 12kg of carbon dioxide. On the other hand, the same amount of beef generates 604kg of carbon dioxide. The difference is staggering, at 50 times the CO2 impact!


Soil loss


Intense agriculture is the primary cause of topsoil erosion. Repeated ploughing, intensive irrigation and the lack of large trees to provide protection lead to a loss of the nutrient-rich topsoil. Brazil loses approximately 55 million tons of topsoil annually due to soy cultivation. The effects are multiplied over the years as the topsoil loss diminishes the productivity of farmed land, leading to falling yields and the need to deforest further, a classic example of seeking cheaper short term gains in place of long term benefits (long-term benefits such as sustainable farming practices). This issue relates to the age old human preference for short term gains, but that may be a topic for another day.


Water consumption


Soy needs a lot of water to grow, and the scaling up of soy production directly requires greater water use. This depletes the natural underground resources in the water table. Intensive farming results in more compacted soil, reducing the water that re-enters the water table. The math is simple, if you take more than you give back, you will soon have problems. Besides, the depleted water supply impacts not only local residents but also the natural life of the region. The chemical based pesticides and fertilisers also leach into the land and water supply of nearby regions, damaging the natural balance of aquatic habitats and polluting the water.



SO, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?


The consumption of animal foods is growing. Even as some in western countries turn towards plant based options and reduce their meat consumption as they become more aware, developing countries have a growing middle class who see meat as another luxury that they can now afford. The net effect is the rise in demand for animal foods, by as much as 25% over the decade, which directly translates to the demand for animal feed, and hence land clearance to facilitate soy and feed grain farming. We can see how this is a real problem. It is estimated that around 80% of all farmable land on the planet goes towards either the growing of feed crops, or to the grazing of animals. This does not translate to 80% of the food supply however, and is a grossly inefficient way to feed the population.


COULD SOY BE A SOLUTION?


Hot take: switching from animal-based foods to soy for our protein may actually be the key.


Rather than consuming it indirectly through livestock, soy is a highly efficient and protein dense food when consumed directly. The same land area used to produce chicken, pork or beef, can feed far more people while delivering the same protein content.


To paint a picture: producing the same amount of protein from chicken as soy requires 3 times the area of land, pork 9 times, and beef 32 times. Based purely on protein consumption, switching meat out for soy would reduce agricultural deforestation by a whopping 94%.

The simplified version is that by reducing (or ending altogether) our dependence on animal foods, we could feed a greater portion of the population while using less land in the process. That sounds like a win-win, maybe not for capitalist businesses but for humanity as a whole.


WHAT CAN YOU AND I DO, AS CONSUMERS?


As aware citizens, it is our duty to help create change. In the economy driven system we live in, a great way you can do that every single day is by voting - with your money!


Going Plant-based:


Eating animals is like dealing double-damage, first from the effects of animal farming and next through the indirect consumption of soy and other intensively farmed feed grains.

Eating plant-based, and eating items like soy directly can dramatically cut your impact on the planet and reduce your dependence on deforested land for your food. Every choice, by every person adds up, not only with the environmental costs but also with the benefits!

Going Local:


A lot of the agricultural feed used in Europe is imported from South America, leading to emissions during transport. A solution is to eat foods with lower food-miles and fewer ghost-ingredients. Eating local and seasonal is a great way to minimise your carbon footprint, by eating the things that are naturally suited to your region. Try shopping at the local weekly market. The benefits include supporting your community and you might even save some money in the process.

Going Organic:


Buying certified organic produce helps by reducing the use of harmful chemical pesticides and fertilisers. By doing so, the farmed land will be protected as well as the neighbouring communities and ecosystems.


Were you shocked to learn about the true driver of soy demand? Let us know in the comments, or get in touch with the content committee and/or authors of this post via ccvsarotterdam@gmail.com !





Credits and sources:


Photo credits: Polina Tankilevitch ; Daria Shevtsova ; gryffyn ; Wikimedia Commons


https://m.farms.com/news/fertilizer-for-soybeans-does-it-pay-40177.aspx


https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2016-01-28-agricultural-commodities-brack-glover-wellesley.pdf


http://awsassets.wwfdk.panda.org/downloads/wwf_soy_report_final_jan_19.pdf


https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/is-soy-bad-for-the-environment


https://phys.org/news/2019-11-forests-amazon-important-carbon.html


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/19/population-crisis-farm-animals-laying-waste-to-planet


https://www.britannica.com/plant/soybean



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