In the past 50 years or so, the cultivation of soybeans has grown tenfold, with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicting it will double by 2050. With this rapid expansion have come difficulties, however, mainly linked to the destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity.

Soybeans are not a new crop, having been grown in Asia for thousands of years. The problems have come in the past century, with the fastest growth in South America, where production grew by 123% between 1996 and 2004, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Despite the vast extent to which soy is produced, the harvests do not go towards direct human food consumption. According to the US Department of Agriculture, only about 6% of soybean production is used for products such as edamame beans, tofu, soy milk or tempeh.

How soybeans go to animal feed

The bulk of soybean production – about three-quarters – goes to animal feed and it is this product that is the chief culprit of the environmental concerns around the crop. As such, just as animal agriculture has kept growing, so has the production of soybeans. 

In a study by the Food Climate Research Network, the growth of soybean production and its use is linked to five main factors. First, it is the crop’s suitability to large-scale and mechanised production, along with its non-perishable nature, which allows it to “be farmed in remote locations and then traded on the global commodity market”. Second, the introduction in 1996 of genetically modified soy that could tolerate glyphosate (a potent weedkiller) “facilitated further reductions in labour and machinery inputs through the combination of broad spectrum herbicides” along with zero-tillage farming. 

The combination of glyphosate and genetically modified soy “aided the expansion of soy onto (degraded) pastures and other areas with native vegetation where weed levels are high”, reads the report. Regarding soy as feed for livestock, it was in the first half of the 20th century that US farmers and plant scientists found that soy cake, also known as soymeal, made an excellent protein ingredient for compound feed, “used to increase livestock productivity”. 

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Furthermore, the oil derived from crushing soybeans catered to the food manufacturing industry’s emerging demand for vegetable oil. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the livestock sector’s use of soymeal was further boosted by the ban on the use of bone meal as livestock feed following the outbreak of what went on to be known as 'mad cow disease' in the UK, fuelling the sector’s need for cheap plant proteins to feed livestock. These factors have in turn made it one of the most profitable crops, both for producers and commodity traders.

Although soybeans can be eaten directly from the vine (ever heard of edamame? Yes, those are soybeans), most of the global production is crushed and processed to produce protein-rich soymeal, vegetable oil and other by-products such as soy lecithin, which is a food additive common in chocolate bars. While soymeal is the main end product of soybean production, second is soy oil, which is used both in food and as a biofuel.

The hidden soy in food and its environmental impact

Between 2005 and 2017, soy, palm oil and beef were the commodities with the largest embedded tropical deforestation imported into the EU, followed by wood products, cocoa and coffee, according to the WWF.

New research on the European soy supply chain, commissioned by the WWF, shows that 90% of the soy Europeans eat is not listed as an ingredient. Instead, it is consumed indirectly in animal feed used to produce meat, eggs, fish and dairy products.

In 2020, the average European consumed 237 eggs, 117kg of various dairy products, 58kg of pork, poultry, beef and other meat, and 2kg of farmed fish

In some cases, such as for chicken and salmon, the amount of soy animal feed is almost equal to that of the food produced. About 95g of soy is needed to produce 100g of farmed salmon, and 96g of soy for 100g of chicken breast. 

Speaking to Investment Monitor, Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove, senior forest policy officer at the WWF's European Policy Office, explained that 90% of deforestation can be linked to agriculture worldwide. 

Consumers do not tend to realise the effect that their food purchases have on the environment, explains Schulmeister-Oldenhove, citing the example of the hidden soy in yoghurt, as it comes from cows fed on the product. Ultimately, this burden should not fall on consumers having to decipher whether their food is contributing to the destruction of ecosystems, she adds.

For that, the WWF and 160 other environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) mobilised 1.2 million people to demand a strong new EU law against deforestation in December 2020. Following this, the European Commission proposed a regulation to mimimise EU-driven deforestation and forest degradation. Since then, support for the campaign has grown to almost 200 NGOs. The consultation was the second-largest public consultation by the European Commission and the largest one on environmental issues, according to Schulmeister-Oldenhove.

However, she adds that although it is a good start, the proposed legislation has loopholes and is not perfect, as so far as other ecosystems such as savannahs, grasslands and peatlands are left unprotected by the European Commission’s proposal. 

Areas such as the grasslands of Cerrado in Brazil, which cover more than 20% of the country, are in great danger, and according to the WWF, this not nearly as recognised as the deforestation in the Amazon. These wooded grasslands are vital for carbon sequestration and once covered an area half the size of Europe, but now their native habitats and rich biodiversity are being destroyed at a faster rate than in the Amazon.

This destruction of habitats linked to agriculture, including soybean production, is "not only having an impact on the [local] region, but it has global impacts, because climate change is not something which is only local or reduced to a certain region”, states Schulmeister-Oldenhove.

The level of protein and nutrients in soybeans makes them a powerful food resource, but the way consumers access them – indirectly, via animal products – is far from efficient or sustainable. 

If the world is to achieve any of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030 deadline, it seems clear that food production and consumption are due a radical change, both for the health of the planet and consumers.

This is the third in a series of articles profiling big crops. Previously, we covered wheat and maize, and in the coming weeks we will cover rice.