The problem with soy

Michael Guindon

We asked experts why soy is a problem

When asked who eats soy, most people think of vegans or hipsters drinking soy lattes in stylish cafes, or adding tofu to their meals as part of a healthy eating plan.

What many people don’t realise is that 75% of the world’s soy is fed to animals — which means the chances are there is soy in the meat, dairy, eggs, or farmed fish you may well have eaten today.

This lack of awareness of the hidden soy in the food we eat has helped keep the impacts of soy production out of the spotlight, particularly in lesser known ecosystems such as the Cerrado in Brazil and Chaco region of Argentina — with other commodities such as palm oil receiving more attention, thanks in no small part to successful campaigns by Greenpeace and others.

But soy farming is a major driver of deforestation that is negatively impacting wildlife, habitats, and biodiversity in South America. Which is why there is an urgent need for positive changes in the way soy is produced.

Why is soy a problem?

The largest producers of soy are Brazil and the United States, accounting for more than 60% of global production. Due to rising demand for soy — particularly to feed the ever growing shift to more meat-based diets and increasing demand from China — Brazil is expected to become the world’s largest soy producer in 2018.

More than half of soy currently produced in Brazil originates from the Cerrado, an area where almost 50% of native vegetation has been cleared largely due to soy production. This region is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, and is home to more than 12,000 plant species — many of which are not found elsewhere.

Soy expansion in the Cerrado has negative consequences not only for Brazil’s biodiversity, but is also a major contributor to global climate change and water pollution in Brazil. Currently almost 1,00o species in the Cerrado are at risk of extinction, including the giant armadillo, the maned wolf and the hyacinth macaw.

Hyacinth macaws are under threat from habitat loss in the Cerrado, photo: David Ellis via flickr.com, creative commons licence.

The region is also an important water source for Brazil. Rivers originating in the Cerrado provide 70% of Brazil’s population with fresh water and up to 80% of Brazil’s energy needs through hydroelectric power.

Indigenous and traditional communities in the Cerrado also rely on the local environment for their livelihoods including for food, medicine, fuel, and income generation. Soy expansion in the Cerrado can result in local communities losing access to the land and the natural resources they depend on.

As highlighted in a recent blog by Global Canopy’s Head of the Supply Chains Programme, the soy sector in Brazil uses significant amounts of agrochemicals, leading to widespread health problems for local communities, contamination of surrounding environments and waterways, and decreases in biodiversity — putting the livelihoods of local communities dependent on natural resources at risk.

What is the sector doing to decrease the impact of soy production?

In response to the growing threats linked to soy production in the Cerrado, civil society organisations signed the Cerrado Manifesto in 2017 (including Global Canopy who recently became a signatory), calling for immediate action by the private sector to protect the Cerrado.

To date, 62 companies have signed the Cerrado Manifesto Statement of Support — including big name brands such as Aldi, Danone, and Unilever. The majority of these signatories are consumer facing companies far removed from the regions where production is happening.

The companies operating on the soy frontier have been slower to embrace the Cerrado Manifesto — although some soy traders such as Cargill and Louis Dreyfus have made zero deforestation commitments. Given the immense challenges that lie ahead in ensuring that positive changes happen in production landscapes, increased action — including increased support for the Cerrado Manifesto and further efforts in translating policies into actions on the ground — is needed by those operating within producing regions.

What can be done to address these impacts?

Given that soy is one of the major contributors to habitat loss in Brazil, and that demand for the crop is projected to rise, there is an urgency to address the damage to biodiversity resulting from soy production.

In particular, companies need to develop more robust soy sourcing policies that cover all their operations, suppliers, and the landscapes they operate in. This needs to be followed with strong implementation plans which will require investment from all actors across the supply chain.

Given the immense challenge involved, all stakeholders need to collaborate to find a sustainable way forward for the sector. Companies need to invest in their suppliers — by providing training, support, and financial incentives for example — to accelerate action across the supply chain.

In the meantime, consumers can contribute by supporting companies that are committed to sourcing soy sustainably and by decreasing their consumption of animal products that are high in embedded soy.

By working together, we can all have a part in decreasing the strain on Brazil’s ecosystems.

Michael Guindon is a project manager with Global Canopy’s Supply Chain programme

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