Myth-busting soy demand & production
Soy, a leguminous species originally native to East Asia (though soy is currently mainly produced in North and South America), has a huge environmental impact when it’s produced on a colossal scale. Large areas of land are being converted into soy plantations leads to devastating consequences including biodiversity loss, soil erosion, contamination, rising carbon emissions, widespread deforestation and the displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe. This does not even detail the indirect environmental impacts of soy processing and transporting across the world and onto our plates.
Many assume that the introduction of soy to the Western diet is the driving force behind the demand for the crop and all the environmental damage which follows. One academic, speaking at the National Farmers Union (NFU) last year claimed that eating tofu to get the same amount of protein as meat is “more damaging to the planet” than beef, pork or chicken.
While soy consumption will definitely impact the carbon footprint in your diet in comparison to other vegan sources of protein such as nuts, grains or legumes, it is a common misconception that a global increase in veganism and vegetarianism is the cause of increased soy production. Vegetarians reduce the amount of crops produced globally.
There are countless ways soy is incorporated into diets, both in fermented (e.g tempeh and soy sauce) and unfermented (e.g soy milk) form and is increasingly being used in biofuel. Due to its high protein content, products such as tofu are very popular as meat replacements in vegetarian and vegan diets.
However, soy is primarily produced for another reason. A large majority of the UK’s soya import (90%) is used to feed animals including cows, pigs and chickens. This figure is true on a global scale, with 80–90% of soybeans around the world fed to farm animals and only 6% of the remaining soy used for human consumption. Recently, a joint investigation by the Guardian, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ITV and Greenpeace Unearthed found that more than 1 million tonnes of soya was used by UK livestock farmers to raise chicken and dairy cows last year. This analysis was linked to deforestation in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
As consumers, we have a much higher intake of soy in our diets than we may think even if we do not directly consume soy products — the bulk of the 61kg of soy the average European consumes annually comes indirectly through animal products that have been fed soy.
When consumed by people instead of pushed through livestock food chains, soy protein is far more land efficient than animal protein. Compared to soy, producing the same amount of protein from chicken requires 3 times the area of land, from pork it requires 9 times as much land, and from beef 32 times as much land. However, the purpose of crops grown must also be taken into account, as the efficiency does decrease if the crops grown are being used for animal feed. In 2010, the soy required for animal feed in Britain required an area nearly as large as Yorkshire.
Soy is an important protein source, particularly for diets low or devoid of animal-based protein. Whilst soy production is less environmentally damaging than meat production, it is not blameless when it comes to environmental impact. This damage can, nonetheless, still be attributed primarily to the colossal amount of soy required for animal feed.
If the demand for animal-based protein continues to rise (as discussed in our previous blog, “Who needs to stop eating meat?”), the demand for animal feed will only further escalate. Thus, as a key element of the animal feed industry, the demand for soy will also continue to increase as will the spiralling environmental damage connected to its growing production.
And yet, there is reason for hope. Innovators across industries all over the globe are finding new ways to produce protein sustainably from alternative vegan protein production to new sustainable feed for animals with lower carbon footprints. In the next blog in this series, we will explore the potential future of protein.