The Secret of Soy

Global soybean production has risen dramatically in the last century. There has been an increase of 15 times in the last seventy years. Around 80% of this soy is used to feed livestock animals in the meat, egg, and dairy industry. This growing demand for soy is mostly due to the rising consumption of meat caused by the expanding global population and the rise of the middle class. Soy has become increasingly popular as an animal feed, as it is cheap and produces high yields. It is also used in a variety of other products, from chocolate to mayonnaise. In recent years, there has even been discussion as to its potential as a source of biofuel.

Soy is mainly grown in South America. In 2018 around 57 million hectares of land in this region were used for soy production. This has come at a detrimental environmental cost. Vast areas of forest, grassland, and savannahs have been cleared to make way for this crop. This is having a devastating impact on the rich biodiversity of the area, which is home to a huge variety of flora and fauna. These ecosystems are also substantial carbon stores. When these are cleared, much of this carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Furthermore, the harvesting, processing, and subsequent transport of soybeans emit significant levels of greenhouse gases.

Large quantities of water are required to grow soy, as it is a water-intensive crop. This depletes natural water supplies that plants, animals, and humans rely on. Additionally, soy relies on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which contain powerful chemicals. When it rains, these chemicals run off the land and contaminate local water systems. Soy production can also result in soil degradation, as the intensive farming practices used are very harsh. The soil is already more vulnerable in these areas, as the removal of tree cover leaves the topsoil exposed to the elements.

Brazil is one of the largest producers of soy in the world. Much of this soy is grown in the Cerrado, a Savannah region that spans around a quarter of Brazil's land area. This area is rich in biodiversity, with “over 10,000 species of plants, almost half of which are found nowhere else in the world” (WWF). Today, almost half of this diverse ecosystem has been converted to farmland, mostly for soybean and meat production.

In 2017, a number of Non-Governmental Organizations in Brazil came together as part of the FAIRR Initiative to release the ‘Cerrado Manifesto’. This calls for industries to stop deforestation in the Cerrado and switch to sustainable farming practices. They call for industries to recognize the Cerrado’s role in mitigating climate change and the devastating environmental impact of the current farming practices. A number of companies signed the manifesto, including Unilever and Tesco. However, in 2020 Tesco was found to be in breach of the agreement, selling chicken raised on soy produced in the Cerrado.

During the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, over 100 world leaders have committed to ending deforestation by 2030. Whilst this is a much-needed step to ensure action is taken, a previous deal made in 2014 which aimed to half deforestation by 2020 has not been met, and deforestation rates are still alarmingly high. However, there is hope, unlike the 2014 agreement, when Brazil was absent, Brazil has been an active participant in the COP26 agreement. It is essential that world leaders take action to address this to prevent us from reaching a tipping point.


Amelia Townsend