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Is Soya Sustainable? 

Mass production of soya is linked to large scale deforestation in South America. In this article, we look at which consumer products are tied to it, and what we can do to create change.

Over the last few decades, soya has driven huge deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, particularly in Brazil. It is linked to massive loss of biodiversity, high carbon emissions and the violations of indigenous rights. 

Soya has long been eaten by people around the world, and has more recently become an important part of vegetarian and vegan diets including in the UK.

However, the vast majority of soya is used for animal feed – making meat and dairy the hidden drivers of soya-related harms.

Soya and deforestation

The largest soya-producing countries are the US, Brazil and Argentina, which together produce about 80% of the world’s supply. Soya is Brazil’s second 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.

To date, around 17 percent of the Amazon has been lost. Vast areas have been chopped down to make space for agricultural land, used for growing maize and soya and rearing cattle.

As a result, the rainforest stores around 30 percent less carbon than it did in the 1990s.

Land grabs for farming endanger Indigenous People. Indigenous communities can be displaced from their Territories and face violence. Indigenous People defending the environment can be attacked or even killed.

Scientists warn that once deforestation reaches 20-25 percent of the total, the rainforest will reach a ‘tipping point’. Human activity will have pushed it to a point where the natural cycles break down: the processes trees use to draw water up from the earth and create rain in the atmosphere will no longer function and will be irreversibly destroyed.

Politicians, NGOs and corporations have made efforts to reduce the impacts of soya on deforestation. However, in 2020, an academic paper estimated that as much as 20 percent of soya exported from Brazil’s largest carbon sinks to the EU was still tainted with deforestation.

Should we eat soya?

Soya beans are so versatile that they have become a staple meat alternative. They can be processed and form the basis of foods like soya milk, tofu, flour and meat-free burgers and sausages.

But it is not vegan and vegetarians who are driving deforestation.

Most of the world's soya is fed to livestock, with only 7% eaten directly by humans (with an additional 13% used for oil). This can be seen in the graph below.

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. (We explain the reasons why in a separate article on the climate impact of different diets.)

If you use a lot of soya milk, you could see if the country of origin for the soya is listed on the carton, or ask the manufacturer. Animal rights charity Viva! says “most soya products available in Europe are actually made from Europe-grown soya.” Italy, France and Germany, for example, all grow soya.

On the other hand, a considerable amount of the meat sold in the UK is linked to deforestation soya from South America. The origin of the feed for the animals we eat is likely to be much harder to verify. If you buy your meat from a local farmer, you may want to ask them what kind of feed they use and where it comes from.

Chart showing that 76% of global soy production is for animal feed

What are companies doing about deforestation soya?

In 2006, major companies trading soya from Brazil signed a landmark agreement. Known as the ‘soya moratorium’, it committed not to buy any soya that had been grown on recently deforested land. The companies also committed to stop buying from farmers known to be using slave labour. The agreement covered most of the soya grown in Brazil and compliance was checked via satellite data. The moratorium was renewed indefinitely in 2016. 

The soya moratorium has undoubtedly improved the situation overall. However, it remains far from watertight, as we explain below.

Brands in the UK have also made moves to address deforestation in their supply chains. In 2021, lots of leading companies agreed to eliminate deforestation soya by 2025. Brands that made the commitment include:

  • supermarkets Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Iceland
  • some of the largest meat producers, such as Avara Foods, 2 Sisters Food Group, Cranswick, Pilgrim’s UK
  • food producing companies, such as Danone, Nestle, Nando’s, KFC, and McDonald’s.

For now, though, much remains to be done. For example, Greenpeace has been running a campaign against Tesco, which it says still “sells chicken and pork fed on soya from deforested land.”

Loopholes around the soya moratorium

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

However, farmers still appear to be chopping down trees so that they can make space for other crops and livestock – allowing them to free up existing agricultural space for soya. 

Large swathes of Brazilian Amazon had already been deforested by 2006, when the moratorium was formed. Many people have argued that the soya is simply being put on this older deforested land which was previously being used for cattle, while the cattle are pushed into the forest frontier.

In Mato Grosso, a state producing the largest amount of soya in Brazil, farmers have felled more than 400 sq miles of forest to expand farms growing soya over a ten-year period. A 2022 investigation found that farmers were selling soya as deforestation-free, while producing maize, cattle or other commodities on the land. Using satellite data, Brazilian NGO Instituto Centro de Vida, Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed and the media organisation Bureau of Investigative Journalism, identified areas equivalent to the size of Greater Manchester that had been chopped down between 2009 and 2019. 

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.

Soya production is the most profitable use of cleared land in the region. So, even if farmers have to shuffle things about in order to grow more of it, they will do so.

Tree in the Cerrado area of Brazil
Cerrado area of Brazil by Rosario Xavier (Pixabay)

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).  Its importance hasn’t been as widely recognised as the Amazon rainforest, 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 destroyed. It loses an area the size of London every three months.

In recent years, corporations and politicians have called for the soya moratorium to be expanded to the Cerrado. In September 2017, over 60 Brazilian NGOs released a ‘Cerrado Manifesto’, calling for soya and meat companies to take action. The Manifesto was signed by corporations including Aldi, Co-operative Group, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Walmart (Asda), Unilever, Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Lidl.

But Cargill, one of the biggest grain traders in the region, rejected the calls in 2019, announcing its own plans. The moratorium has not yet been expanded to the region.

What is the situation now?

Between 2005 and 2013 the rate of Amazon deforestation fell by 70%. The change was in small part due to the soya moratorium, but also reflected the expansion of protected reserves and other major environmental legislation.

However, in recent years much of this progress has been unravelled, due to political change in the region. In 2019, far right president Jair Bolsonaro took office in Brazil. As Vox reports, Bolsonaro “stripped enforcement measures, cut spending for science and environmental agencies, fired environmental experts, and pushed to weaken Indigenous land rights, among other activities largely in support of the agribusiness industry.”

Deforestation reached a 15 year peak under Bolsonaro – although it remained at a much lower rate than in the early 1990s and 2000s, when around 20,000 square kilometres were chopped down annually.

Bolsonaro has since left office. He was replaced by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2023, who has pledged to end deforestation. But the new administration has a huge challenge on its hands. February 2023 apparently saw the highest deforestation rates since records began, but, by summer 2023 there are reports that the deforestation rate has slowed by a third.

Other initiatives: 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. However, these schemes suffer from the same issue as the moratorium: because they are piecemeal, they can just cause things to be shifted around. 

Soya and GMOs

Around three quarters of soya grown globally is genetically modified (GM), meaning that foreign DNA has been implanted into the crop to change how it grows. Critics of genetic modification say that it poses unnecessary risks that we don’t yet understand. 

GM crops are adapted to be used with particular chemical pesticides and fertilisers. These chemicals can be highly toxic to the environment, poisoning rivers and local wildlife. They are often also made from fossil fuels. 

GM seeds are also often designed to be more dominant than non-GM varieties, meaning that when the different kinds cross-pollinate, it will always be the GM variety that thrives. This can mean that GM kills off other varieties, reducing genetic diversity. Some varieties will be more resilient to pests or diseases than others, so if a whole area is planted with GM crops, they can all get wiped out by one pathogen. 

Companies producing GM seeds have strict patents, protecting their biotechnology. Under these patents, farmers cannot reproduce the seed for themselves, but have to buy it fresh each year. This can come at a high cost, and make them dependent on billion dollar corporations. 

GM soya beans are not currently grown in either the EU or the UK. However, they can be imported. Table, a sustainable food research institute, says, “In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, GM crops are used very little for food but widely for animal feed. While the food use of GM soy is not forbidden, European policy requires approved GMOs (like soy) to be listed on food ingredient labels.”

Ethical Consumer rates all companies selling meat or dairy on their GM policy. Unless they explicitly commit not to use GM feed, or only sell organic (which bans GM), all companies lose half a mark under Controversial Technology. 

What can consumers do about soya?

There are various actions consumers can take to address soya and deforestation, from changing what we buy and eat, to signing petitions and joining campaigns.

  1. Tell Tesco to address deforestation soya and meat. 

Greenpeace is calling on Tesco to “stop buying from companies owned by JBS - the biggest industrial meat producer in the world, and one of the biggest drivers of Amazon destruction.” They say that “Tesco uses more soya for animal feed than any supermarket in the UK”. 

Sign the Greenpeace Tesco petition.

  1. Cut back on meat and dairy. 

The biggest driver of soya demand is the meat and dairy industry, with 76% of global soya production being used for animal feed. Gains made by addressing deforestation from soya are also being undermined, as farmers instead convert land for rearing cattle. 

If we reduced global beef consumption by 20 percent, it could halve deforestation, academics found in 2022.

Find out how to make small and bigger changes to your diet with our article on reducing meat and dairy products.

  1. Use Ethical Consumer’s guides to ethical alternatives. 

Ethical Consumer’s guides to vegan food products rate and rank over a hundred brands on their ethical and environmental record. We have guides to vegan and plant-based milks, vegan and meat-free sausages and burgers, vegan cheese, and butter and spreads

Our guides give information on brands’ soya sourcing, as well as their carbon emissions and workers’ rights. You can also use them to dodge companies using GM soya or feed, by looking for organic brands or checking their rating. 

  1. Call on the government to hold companies to account. 

You could also sign a petition by Friends of the Earth, which is calling on the government to make businesses responsible for their environmental and human rights harms under law.

According to the petition, companies “finance the soy trade that forces people from their land. And UK law lets them get away with it. Companies should be required to avoid harm to communities and the environment.”

Sign the FOE petition on environmental responsibility.

  1. Ask the UK government to ban the import of deforestation-linked animal feed. 

Greenpeace is calling on the UK government to reduce meat and dairy by 70 percent by 2030, to support farmers to produce food more sustainably, and ban the import of animal feed that drives deforestation.

Sign the Greenpeace petition on food and imported animal feed.

Note on spelling: we have used 'soya' as this is the more accepted spelling in the UK, but have kept 'soy' in quotes or other direct sources which used that spelling.