Is the Environmental Impact of Soy a Valid Argument Against a Plant-based Diet?
We think not. Instead, we think the statistics around soy are compelling arguments to eat more plants. Here’s why.
Having explored the health-based arguments for and against including soy in our diets, our thoughts turned to the environmental impact of growing soybeans.
Soy is produced on an immense global scale and undeniably does have a significant impact on the environment. But do the effects of this create a good argument against: a) eating a plant-based diet in general, or b) eating soy products?
Once again we have trawled the research to find the truth about soy and we think it’s more complicated than the common arguments against this little legume would have us believe. Is soy single-handedly responsible for destroying the environment? We think not.
The majority of soy grown worldwide is used for animal feed
Those soybeans are then processed in different ways for different — edible, industrial and medical — reasons. Whole beans are used to make the products we widely associate with human consumption, such as soy milk, tofu and tempeh. Alternatively, the beans are crushed to make oils and protein products. The latter are mainly used as animal feed.
In fact, 70–75 percent of the world’s soy is used as feed for chickens, pigs, cows and farmed fish. In 2016, 18 percent was being used as biodiesel (mainly by the EU) and the remainder — between just 7 and 12 percent — was being used for everything else, including human consumption.
On the other hand, if we used all the cropland we have available to grow food (including soy) for human consumption there would be plenty to go around: we would easily be able to feed 9 billion people.
The environmental effects of soy production
Given all of this, let’s explore how our current soybean situation affects the environment both positively and negatively.
Soybeans are a highly lucrative business but the majority of the world’s supply are grown in three countries: the USA (35%), Brazil (29%) and Argentina (18%).
In the US soy is mostly grown on arable farmland and, due to its late harvesting, it is grown in rotation with other crops, such as corn. There are benefits associated with the plant itself, too: it adds nitrogen back to the soil for the next crop to utilise; soy yields rely on minimal fertilisers and pesticides; and soy actually supports farmers in managing a common pest called blackgrass.
It is in the developing world — South America particularly — where the biggest environmental issues arise, and not because of the plant itself. Soybeans are of great economical value but come at a huge environmental cost when biodiverse land is cleared to grow it.
There is a strong link between the increase in soy production and deforestation in South America. Satellite imagery was used to show that cropland expansion, mainly for soy, was the main driver of deforestation between 2001 and 2004, accounting for 17 percent of total forest loss in that time.
In 2006, a soy moratorium was put in place, headed by Greenpeace and supported by global NGOs. Global traders pledged not to trade soy from areas cleared after 2008 in an effort to reconcile economic development with preservation of the unique rainforest ecosystems. This meant that clearing new areas for soy crops became less economically viable since the market decreased significantly. As a result, deforestation is still happening but at a much slower pace and, during the 2013-14 crop year, soybeans were found to directly account for less than 1 percent of total Amazon deforestation.
Importantly, this does not take into account the intrinsic link between soy and cattle farming in the area. A 2010 study explored this relationship and found that areas previously used for pasture were now being used to grow soybeans. They concluded that the cattle pastures had simply been displaced causing further deforestation. Therefore, an increase in demand for animal feed, and the resulting increase in soybean farming, may still be one of the major — but indirect — causes of deforestation in South America.
When considering deforestation in Brazil it is important to look at the whole picture, especially how the cropland used to grow soy interacts with other land uses and what the beans themselves are used for. Ultimately, it is in the interaction between soybeans and animal agriculture that the biggest problems lie.
Effects on Biodiversity
The impact of clearing land — whether to grow feed crops for livestock or to graze cattle directly — has had a negative impact on hosts of other animals and plants too.
The Cerrado Basin in Brazil — where much of the deforestation occurs — is home to around 5% of all species on Earth, including over 10,000 species of plants, almost half of which are unique to the area. Deforestation in biodiverse areas like this affects both the resource and water security of the animals and plants living there, as well as the stability of global food supplies.
Growing global demand for meat
Frustratingly, the demand for soybeans continues to grow in line with our global demand for animal products, originally in the developed world and now with the rising middle classes in China and India in particular.
To meet this growing demand, ever more land is needed. Soy is an annual crop and one that is largely unresponsive to fertilisers. Therefore, to increase the yield more plants need to be grown and that requires more space.
The average European consumes approximately 61kg of soy per year, and not by eating tofu: this consumption is largely indirect, through meat, fish, milk and eggs. In 2010, Britain needed an area the size of Yorkshire to produce enough soy to make enough animal feed. If the global demand for animal products continues to grow as expected, it is estimated that soy production will need to increase by nearly 80%. The implications of this are simply catastrophic for the environment.
Genetically modified crops
Since more land mass is necessary to grow more soy, one solution is to grow genetically modified, potentially higher-yielding, varieties of soy. this comes with a whole new set of questions and concerns.
In 2014, 94 percent of soybean farmland in the US was used to grow genetically modified soybeans. No GM crops are grown commercially in the UK but genetically modified organisms (GMOs), like soybeans, are used for animal feed. In the EU (currently including the UK) foods must state clearly on their label if they contain ingredients produced from GMOs.
Because we Brits don’t grow our own soybeans (more on that later), we rely on imported non-GM soy, which is becoming increasingly rare on the global market but controversies around genetic modification are vast. Regardless of our opinions on GMOs, UK laws mean that — for us at least — GM soybeans are not currently the answer.
Since the vast majority of soy consumed — directly or indirectly — in the UK is imported, there is the natural question of its carbon footprint.
Eating tofu once or twice a week contributes 12 kg to your annual greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to heating the average UK home for 2 days or driving 32 miles). The same amount of dairy equates to four times as much, and beef? A whopping 604 kg (driving 1,542 miles or heating your home for 95 days).
Soybeans are generally transported internationally by ocean freighting or, overland, using trucks. This is good news for the environment as air freighting would be a big issue. One kilo of produce moved by air-freight has a hundred times the climate impact compared with produce moved by sea-freight. This is because it takes a lot of energy to keep a plane in the air and engine emissions do more damage at higher altitudes.
Sadly, it is hard to deny the detrimental impact of soy farming on the environment in terms of deforestation and biodiversity. However, soy farming is also not single handedly to blame when we look at the interplay between crops and livestock on a global scale, specifically the proportion of soy that is used to feed animals.
It is actually our over-reliance on animal products — and the global likelihood of this continuing to increase rather than decrease — that is causing the most damage to the planet, in terms of the issues above but also soil erosion, nutrient depletion and water usage.
Therefore, we believe that the environmental impact of soy is most definitely not a valid argument against a plant-based diet. We also don’t believe it is a good reason not to eat that sweet and sour tofu. By replacing meat with a plant-based alternative (even one made from soy) you are moving the needle in a more environmentally efficient and sustainable direction.
All this considered, it is still worth being aware of the soy products we buy and eat if we are concerned about the environment.
While we are unlikely to produce enough soy in the UK to fulfill all of our needs as they stand, the amount of UK-grown soybeans is on the up. Mirroring the global trend, the majority of beans are used for animal feed but a trailblazing Norwich-based company have been creating homemade products from locally-grown soy.
Unimpressed with the range on offer and concerned about the environmental implications of importing, they began to press their own firm, fresh tofu. This is both sold as is and used to make a range of deli-counter items, including “soysages” and burgers. Since its inception in 2016, Tofurei has gone from strength to strength, over tripling the amount of soybeans they bought this year compared with last year.
If you’re really keen to eat local soy, why not drop them an email? They currently supply a host of local businesses and are keen to distribute to individuals too.
In the EU, organic labels mean that artificial fertilisers and pesticides are avoided; soil is kept fertile by rotating crops; and weeds and diseases are controlled using approved techniques and materials.
While the label does not always mean quite what we think it means, there is evidence to show that organic farming can have positive effects on biodiversity and help farms to both become more resilient to the effects of climate change and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
And… Eat more plants
Soybeans are fed to animals due to their high protein content as well as the quality of the protein they contain. Eating plants directly is both more efficient and better for the environment. Currently 77% of the world’s agricultural landmass is used for livestock, whereas if the land we currently use to grow their feed was used to grow crops for humans to eat, we would have enough to feed 9 billion people.
And, even more important than eating organic or locally-sourced food, are the type of foods we choose to eat. Buying all our household supplies locally could achieve a 4-5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, while choosing a plant-based diet for just one day a week would have the same impact.
Imagine what would happen if you had just one plant-based meal every day?
Allplants’ commitment to the environment
As a B-Corp, every choice we make is made consciously with the good of people and the planet in mind. This includes where we source our soy. Balancing demand with what’s best is quite a challenge. We have chosen a GMO-free policy and ensure that none of our products are air-freighted.
Feel free to check out our environmental policies if you’re interested.
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