Is Soya Sustainable? 

Mass production of Soya has received fierce criticism for its role in the deforestation of South America. So, should we as humans stop eating it? 

Soya has been a product widely used by vegetarians and wholefood enthusiasts. Soya beans are so versatile that they have become a staple meat alternative. They can be processed and form the basis of a number of food such as soya milk, tofu, flour and meat-free burgers and sausages

However, the mass production of soya has received fierce criticism for its role in the deforestation of South America.

Soya and deforestation 

The two major soya-producing countries are the US and Brazil, which together produce about 64% of the world’s supply. Soya is Brazil’s biggest export by value, and there have long been serious concerns about the extent to which it is behind deforestation in the Amazon and surrounding regions. 

This absolutely does not mean that vegetarians are the ones responsible for deforestation in the Amazon. Most of the world's soya is fed to livestock, only 6% of it is eaten directly by humans. See our meat-free guide for figures on the amount of “embedded soya” in animal products. Eating soya is vastly better for the environment than eating animal products, across many variables. A vegan diet is responsible for about half the greenhouse gas emissions of an omnivorous one.

There has been a ‘soya moratorium’ in place in Brazil since 2006. The moratorium is an agreement between the companies who buy nearly all of the soya in Brazil. They agreed not to buy any soya that had been grown on recently deforested land, and to blacklist farmers known to be using slave labour. Verification is done with satellite data. The moratorium was renewed indefinitely in 2016. 

The soya moratorium appears to have been successful at preventing soya being grown on freshly deforested land in the Amazon.

Image: soya plantation
Brazil nut tree stands alone in a soya field planted on deforested land. Credit: Greenpeace

Loopholes around the Soya Moratorium

However, this does not mean that soya is no longer a cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Because there are lots of ways its role can be hidden. 

Many people have argued that the soya is simply being put on the older deforested land which was previously being used for cattle, while the cattle are pushed into the forest frontier.

Theoretically, there is also a cattle deforestation moratorium in place in Brazil.  But enforcement is much harder with cattle, because they’re easy to move about. The agreements only cover the bit of ground they were standing on just before slaughter. This means that cattle can easily be ‘laundered’ – reared on illegally cleared land and then shifted to permitted areas right at the end. One paper states: 

“Ranchers reported that such laundering is a common and accepted practice, and pointed to the fact that it is not prohibited by the agreements" Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology

Soya production is the most profitable use of cleared land in the region. So, even if the moratorium means that farmers have to do a bit of switching and shuffling things about in order to do it, it is likely to still be providing a motivating factor.

The causes of Amazon deforestation 

The Amazon deforestation rate fell by 70% between 2005 and 2013. It has been rising again somewhat recently, although the quantities are still a very long way from the horrendous amounts seen in the early 2000s. 

It is tempting to attribute the dramatic fall to the soya moratorium, and we may have been a bit overenthusiastic in that regard in our previous guide on the topic. 

A 2017 article on Mongabay pointed out that, while it definitely had an impact, the major fall – of almost 50% – happened before the moratorium was signed.

Politics was inevitably a major part of the story. The big progress tackling deforestation happened under the left-wing government led by Lula da Silva, which made it a policy goal. 

In contrast, the new far-right President, Bolsonaro, has openly pledged to plunder the Amazon. It is too early to say what is actually going to happen, but a lot of people are extremely frightened. 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Cerrado 

The other major problem with the soya moratorium is that it only covers the Amazon. Meanwhile, virgin habitat has continued to be ripped up unchecked in the nearby Brazilian Cerrado. 

The Cerrado is an enormous savannah (a mixed habitat with trees that are more widely spaced than in a forest), which has struggled to be as glamorous as the Amazon but is nonetheless the most biodiverse savannah on the earth, helps regulate the region’s rainfall patterns, and stores about 13.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Half of the Cerrado has already been lost. In September 2017, over 60 Brazilian NGOs released a ‘Cerrado Manifesto’, calling for soy and meat companies to take immediate action to protect the rest. It states: 

“It is unnecessary for the livestock and agricultural sectors to continue expanding into natural habitats in the Cerrado, especially considering there are around 40 million hectares already cleared in Brazil suitable for cultivating soy – the main crop associated with the destruction of native vegetation. Modest gains in cattle-raising efficiency would free millions of hectares for other types of land use.”

Many corporations have signed, including Aldi, Co-operative Group, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Walmart (Asda), Unilever, Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Lidl. While this is a good start, it is a symbolic statement rather than action.

The Roundtable on Responsible Soy and Proterra

As well as the moratorium, there are two certification schemes working in the area: the Roundtable on Responsible Soy and ProTerra. They certify individual producers. WWF produced a ‘scorecard’ in 2016, detailing the proportion of big companies’ soya that was certified by these schemes:  

Waitrose

 65% 

Marks & Spencer

 52% 

Asda

 11% 

Unilever

  8%
Morrisons
 
  7%
Tesco
 
  3%
Co-operative
 
  1%
Sainsbury's 
 
  0%

The big problem with these schemes is that they suffer from the same issue as the moratorium: because they are piecemeal, they can just cause things to be shifted around. However, they may well be better than nothing. 

What consumers can do about soya

The fall in deforestation that took place after 2005 shows what is possible. And given the amount of land already cleared in Brazil, it should be eminently possible to grow soya without decimating local ecosystems. The problem is that the politics of the region is moving rapidly away from that, not towards it. 

Therefore, we currently advise buying products containing soya from outside Brazil if possible, and pressurising the big companies to do more to counteract the damage that Bolsonaro is likely to do. Various ideas are being thrown around online, but much will depend on what he actually does, which is not clear. We will keep you updated.

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