Soy has been connected to deforestation, and there is some truth to it. But not because tofu is on the rise. This week we take a close look at one of the more controversial crops.
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Main learning: most soy is used to feed animals, not humans
Goal: don’t feel guilty about replacing meat with soy
Impact: High 🌍🌎🌏🌍⚪️ (as part of eating less meat)
There are many counterarguments that people have when it comes to eating less meat. One of the most common ones is that you will probably eat more soy products, which leads to the destruction of the rainforest.
Google Earth really reveals how much land used to be forest, and is now used for agriculture. Even closer to home – in Europe – Frank’s childhood place was not wat he thought. Read his story in the Fork Ranger book (page 49).
Of course there are plenty of ways to eat less meat without soy, but is there any truth to it? Let’s find out.
Does soy cause deforestation?
Three products account for 60% of all deforestation: beef, palm oil, and soy. But what exactly is the role of soy? The wonderful people at Our World in Data have written an excellent answer to this question. Here is a summary.
In the last sixty years, the production of soy increased so much that now we need four times more space to grow all those soybeans. And one region where a lot of this new soy was planted was the Amazon rainforest.
Soy is often used in these cases because it’s a good pioneer plant: on land that is used for agriculture for the first time, soy has higher yields than other crops (this fact and many other insights about soy come from the book Meat: a benign extravagance).
As a response, civil organisations managed to create a deal between soybean companies to refuse any kind of soy from deforestation areas. The campaign was effective. Today the biggest cause of deforestation is the creation of pastures for beef, not soy.
But that’s not the full story as the deal only covers the Amazon. In other regions of Brazil, soy is planted on grasslands and pastures. This means that the area for beef then needs to shift somewhere else. And often that is the Amazon.
In other words, even though soy is not the leading cause of deforestation, it still is a big problem for the world’s forests because it increases the pressure to cut down forests for more pasture.
What is the cause of this growth in soy production?
So let’s look at the drivers of soy production. If the soybean production grew so much, what is all the soy used for? As the graph below shows, it’s not because there are so many people who want to eat more tofu. Quite the opposite.
The majority of soy is used as animal feed, mostly for chickens and pigs. But also – relevant in the Netherlands – for high production dairy cows, which otherwise don’t have enough protein to produce the thousands of litres of milk which are required from them.
The Netherlands is also the biggest importer of soy in the EU, with 44% coming from Brazil. Some of it is exported again, but a lot of it is used as animal feed.
Soy as a by-product
Another argument related to this which is often brought up is that soy for animal feed is a by-product. Looking strictly at the production process this is true, but does it hold given the quantities? To understand this reasoning, let’s have a quick look at the processing.
First the hulls of soybeans are removed and then they are crushed. This results in ca. 20% soybean oil and 80% hulls and leftovers, which are processed into soybean cake.
Soybean oil is the second-most used vegetable oil in the world, only the palm oil production is bigger. I was really surprised to read this. I have never seen soybean oil in the store but that’s because it’s used in all kinds of products from margarine and sauces to biscuits. The ‘by-product’ soybean cake is fed to animals.
And that means soybean oil and soy for animal feed go hand in hand. This brings up a tricky question: what is the main product of soy? The oil or the animal feed?
Looking at the huge demand for animal feed, it’s too simple to call soy for animals a by-product. In order to decrease the world’s soy production, we therefore need to eat less meat.
How do soy products compare to meat?
So far we’ve learned tofu and other soy products only account for a small part of the world’s soy production. What this does mean for the impact of those products?
Like most of the time, plant foods have a much lower footprint than meat. No exception for soy.
Additionally the majority of soy for products like yoghurt or tofu are not grown in the Amazon but come from certified farms in Europe and Canada.
So whether you look at what soy is used for or what the footprint of soy products is, the conclusion remains the same: eating soy products as a replacement for meat and dairy is a big win for the climate.
The last thing that might keep you from eating soy
Okay, eating soy is sustainable. But maybe you’ve heard that soya contains dangerous levels of estrogen? The Harvard Medical school provides answers to all health-related soy questions.
The estrogen fear is a myth that comes from the fact that soy contains a similar compound, but at such low levels that it poses no risk.
You can safely eat soy products multiple times a week, and doing so is probably even good for your health. One of the many benefits of soy is that it’s one of the few plant-based proteins that is ‘complete’. This means it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies can’t produce themselves.
Like always, the healthiest options are whole foods, in this case tempeh, tofu or edamame. Plant-based ‘meats’ made of soy are more processed, and let’s not pretend that eating a hamburger, whether plant-based or made of meat, was ever a healthy choice.
Long story short: while soy is causing deforestation, that’s mostly because it’s used as animal feed to produce meat. Soy products for human consumption are not only a sustainable source of protein but also a healthy option. So, what keeps you from trying some soy products?