• Kayleigh Goodman

Is soy really bad for the planet?

Updated: Jan 5

With the increase in plant-based diets for environmental reasons, we want to investigate: is soy really bad for the planet?

Soybeans are a staple of diets across the world. This protein-packed legume creates products like tofu, soy milk, tempeh, miso, and edamame.

But soy faces an onslaught of criticism for its environmental impact.

Why is soy supposedly "bad" for the environment?

In 2018, 348.7 million tonnes of soy were produced globally - an increase of almost 1200% over the last 60 years! At the same time, our global population has increased 154% to 7.9 billion people. While the number of people on Earth has grown significantly, it doesn't quite match the rapid rise in soy production... So what's driving this furious demand for soy?

The answer lies in animal agriculture. Meat and dairy production has quadrupled globally since 1961. All these animals, reared to feed us, need their own food too. In fact, Oxford University researchers discovered that more than 3/4 of all soy produced today goes into animal feed, with the majority going to poultry, pigs and farmed fish. Our global demand for meat has put increasing pressure on the world's resources; not just for pasture land and water, but for space to grow soybeans too.

This means large areas of land are being cleared for soy production generating headlines about deforestation.

The link between soy and deforestation

Natural forests are rich in plant and animal species and provide resources to local people. But they also capture carbon dioxide and regulate rain and local climate. When we remove trees to make room for something else - like agriculture, grazing or timber - we lose biodiversity and the benefits of the forest. This leads to soil erosion, desertification, and changes to local and global climate.

The majority (84%) of the world's soy is grown in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and China. Soy production in South America has garnered the most controversy, due to concerns about clearing the Amazon Rainforest.

It is true that the Amazon Rainforest is being cleared at an alarming rate. And deforestation of this unique habitat causes untold damage to wildlife, the global climate, and even proliferates diseases like malaria.

But soy is not necessarily the driver behind it.

Since 2006, the first voluntary zero-deforestation agreement has been in place: the Amazon Soy Moratorium. Research indicates that this agreement has likely prevented an area near the size of Albania (27000km²) from being deforested. Now, the leading driver of Amazonian deforestation is beef production.

However, this doesn't mean that soy's off the hook. Agreements like this can simply drive the production of soy, and deforestation of biodiverse regions, elsewhere. So this begs the question...

How can we reduce soy's impact on the environment?

It may seem counterintuitive, but eating more tofu, tempeh and soy products could actually reduce the environmental impact of soy.

Less than 20% of all soy produced is eaten by humans. If we replaced animal protein in our diet with tofu, we would reduce the overall demand for soy.

In addition to eating less meat, you can also look to buy soy products awarded independent, zero-deforestation certificates, like ProTerra or RTRS. Supporting these schemes encourages the development of even more sustainability schemes to improve food systems.

If you're feeling green-fingered, you could even have a go at growing your own soybeans or edamame. You'll reduce CO2eq emissions from transport and fertilisers used in mass production.

So is soy "bad" for the environment? We don't think so. Any crop that's grown on the scale needed for animal agriculture, at the current rate of demand, will create problems for space, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.

The real challenge for humans is to reduce our meat-eating habits which will, in turn, lower the demand for soy.

What are your thoughts about the environmental challenges with soy? Let us know below!

Our sources:

1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2021) - "Forests and Deforestation". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. [Online Resource]

2. Fraanje, Walter, and Tara Garnett. “Soy: food, feed, and land use change.” Table Debates, 2020. Accessed 12 July 2021.

3. Heilmayr, Robert, et al. “Brazil’s Amazon Soy Moratorium reduced deforestation.” Nature Food, vol. 1, 2020, pp. 801–810. Nature.

4. Macdonald, Andrew J., and Erin A. Mordecai. “Amazon deforestation drives malaria transmission, and malaria burden reduces forest clearing.” PNAS, vol. 116, no. 44, 2019, pp. 22212-22218. PNAS.