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.

Should I stop eating soya?

This absolutely does not mean that vegetarians eating tofu have ever been a leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Most of the world’s soya is fed to animals; only 6% of it is eaten directly by people.

Yet it is still sensible to be concerned about where the soya in your veggie burger comes from. 

If it is grown well, soya should be an environmentalist’s best friend. It produces more protein per land area than any other major crop. It grows particularly well in tropical climates, which is why so much is grown in South America, but Brazil has enough former pasture or abandoned land to double the amount of farmland without harming a single leaf on a single tree.[1] The issue is making sure that this happens. 

Brazil’s success story 

There is good news, as Brazil has managed to vastly reduce deforestation over the past decade. The rate at which the Amazon is being cut down is now 70% lower than it was ten years ago. As a result, it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country on earth.[2]

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

Most analysts put this achievement down to a political shift within Brazil. A big part of the story is the moderately left wing government that has been in power since 2003. It has made some effort to tackle deforestation: expanding protected areas, shutting down illegal logging operations, and throwing those responsible in jail. Another part is that the soya and beef industries have both agreed to moratoriums on the buying of produce grown on deforested land – more on that below.[3]

However, there is also bad news. In spite of this success, the Amazon is still being lost at about 6000 km2 a year – an area about the size of Norfolk. Furthermore, the rate of deforestation has started rising again in the last couple of years. And some of the things that have contributed to the reduction in deforestation are now under threat. 

The Brazilian Soy Moratorium

The Brazilian Soy Moratorium was established in 2006, after a huge global campaign by Greenpeace. Two huge industry groups agreed that none of their members would buy any soya grown on recently deforested land. And this was a massive deal as these groups – representing traders like Cargill, ADM (Pura and Crisp ‘n’ Dry brands in the cooking oil guide) and Bunge – control 90% of the Brazilian soya market. 

Farms violating it are identified using satellite data from the Brazilian Space Agency. 

Image: McStrike
Protest outside McDonalds after a report revealed the chickens used in their products were fed on soya that comes from the Amazon. Photo credit: Greenpeace

The moratorium was initially a short-term agreement, but it was renewed eight times and then in May 2016, against all the odds, the moratorium was renewed indefintely.

"The renewal of the moratorium indefinitely ensures producers and trading companies can continue to rely on forest friendly Amazon soy to keep the doors to the global market open, even in times of environmental and political-economic crisis", said Paulo Adario, Senior Forest Strategist for Greenpeace International and signatory of the agreement.

The moratorium has been an incredible success, which is especially impressive given that the price of soya has been high over the period. One recent academic study found: 

“Between 2001 and 2006, prior to the moratorium, soybean fields in the Brazilian Amazon expanded by 1 million hectares, contributing to record deforestation rates. By 2014, after eight years of the moratorium, almost no additional forest was cleared to grow new soy.”[4]

Inevitably, there are some problems. One problem is that the moratorium only covers the Brazilian Amazon, and deforestation for soya has continued in other places such as Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil’s Cerrado forests. 

Soy certification schemes

As well as the moratorium, there are two main certification schemes that are active in South American soya: The Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and ProTerra. They both started about the same time as the moratorium. A decade on, their most glaring feature is how much less successful they have been than the moratorium. 

The schemes both demand that soya meets basic environmental and labour standards. The ProTerra scheme differs in that the soya must be non-GM, and also, when you buy a bit of ProTerra certified soya, it is guaranteed to be the same bit that received the certification. The Roundtable allows some certification credits to be bought and sold separately from the soya that earned them. 

So far, engagement with these schemes has been pretty limp. Only 0.5% of soya from Brazil is RTRS certified, and half the credits that have been issued have not been sold, due to a lack of buyers. A slightly larger amount is ProTerra certified, but not much.[5] It is possible that this lack of interest may have been partly due to the success of the moratorium. 

Many groups such as Friends of the Earth have criticised the Roundtable for having lax standards, pointing out, for example, that the criteria contain loose ideas like “native forest” that are easily open to abuse.[6]

What happens now? 

Things have definitely improved in the last decade. But there are still major problems. 

There is something that none of these schemes address, which is soya’s indirect impact – widely believed to be a factor in the remaining Amazon destruction. It works like this: cattle ranchers sell their land to soya farmers, pocket the money and move into the forest themselves. The soya comes up smelling of roses because it is not being grown on ‘recently deforested land’. It has displaced its guilt onto the cattle. While there is also a beef moratorium in Brazil, it is not yet clear whether it is working as well as the soya one.[7] 

The theory is that the Brazilian government will take over forest protection. Over the past few years it has built a national land registry to clarify who owns what, and companies are saying that this should give it sufficient agency to enforce its own land use policies as it sees fit.

But there are several problems here, one of which is that the law is too weak. Since 1965 the Brazilian ‘Forest Code’ has officially protected Brazil’s forests; stipulating protected areas and demanding that landowners conserve native forest on a certain proportion of their land, ranging from 80% in the Amazon, to 20% in other areas. While that is something, it still allows for quite a bit of deforestation. Furthermore, the law was weakened in 2012 after a big political fight, which does not bode well. 

Another problem is that, even with the land registry, it remains to be seen how well the government will enforce the law. 

Recent research found farmers five times more likely to violate the Forest Code than the soya moratorium.[8]

What can consumers do?

For those who want to avoid South American soya, Veggies, Cauldron and Taifun all say that their soya is not sourced from the region. Veggies’ and Taifun’s comes exclusively from Europe, while Cauldron’s comes from Europe, China and Canada. 

If you want to avoid soya altogether, Goodlife burgers and sausages are made from other beans, vegetables and nuts, as are Waitrose’s. And Quorn is made from mycoprotein. 

We couldn’t get details of where the other companies source their soya. 

The Soya Moratorium is supported by the European Soy Customer Group, whose members include Waitrose, M&S, Tesco, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Nestle and ASDA. They should be commended on being part of such a successful initiative. 

In terms of the purchase of RTRS credits, the World Wildlife Fund describe M&S, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco as leaders.9 M&S has committed to buying the most out of any UK shop, although this is still only enough to cover, in its own words “the soy used in all M&S Oakham chicken products”. 

There is a lack of organised campaigns in this area at the moment, probably because the problem looked sufficiently like it was solved so that everyone turned their attention onto palm oil instead. However, the Soya Moratorium has shown the power that companies really have to do things in this area, and the power that the public have to force them into it. So if it all starts to unravel in the next few years, it will be worth focusing as much pressure on them as we can.

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