Soy farming is a billion-dollar industry, and it’s one of the most rapidly growing agricultural industries in the world. Soybean production has grown 15 times in the past 50 years, making it one of the fastest-growing crops on the planet.
Soy is a plant that has long been used in traditional medicine but has recently gained appeal owing to its versatility as a protein source, especially among the demographic that refrains from consuming animal protein.
This trend is further expected to grow as the global market for plant-based proteins is expected to expand from USD$10.3 billion in 2020 to $15.6 billion by 2026.
However, the question of the hour is ‘Is soy farming bad for the environment?‘
We saw a drastic change in the demand for soy in recent years and As this industry grows and becomes more profitable for countries and regions worldwide, soy farming environmental impact has also grown—and not necessarily for the better.
In recent years, soy farming has become an increasingly popular way for countries to generate income through exports for the government and businesses.
Unfortunately, as more and more countries begin to rely on soy production to generate income, there have been some serious consequences for both human health and the environment.
The Cerrado Basin in Brazil, where much of the deforestation occurs, is home to around 5% of all species on the planet, including over 10,000 plant species, nearly half of which are unique to the area.
This is bad because it destroys habitats and increases carbon emissions, and because it’s causing soil erosion and flooding across the world, which causes massive runoff into nearby waterways and oceans with devastating effects on marine life.
Soybean production is concentrated in a handful of countries, but the geographic cultivation to usage ratio distribution is drastically uneven. This is reflected in the following stats.
Global soy production in the year 2020 jumped 5.1% to a whopping 353,463,735 metric tonnes from 336,329,392 metric tonnes in 2019. Of the total soy production, Brazil took the lead accounting for 34% of all the soy produced while the USA stood second at 32% and Argentina, a distant third country at 14%. This implies, only three countries amount to 80% of all the soy produced globally. (Statistics courtesy : Wikipedia)
The United States was the leading worldwide producer of soybeans from 2015-16 to 2018-2019, with a 120.52 million metric tonnes production level in 2018-2019. With 138 million metric tonnes produced in 2020-21, Brazil surpassed the United States as the greatest soybean producing country in May 2020. (Read more here)
Decoding the Soy Production Trend – Has Veganism Got to do Anything With it?
The soy market is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. Soybeans were grown on around 76 million acres in 2013, with over 3.2 billion bushels harvested, and although this may seem like good news for farmers, it’s not all that simple.
Let’s understand the total soy demand and consumption proportion – What percent of soy goes to livestock, biofuels, and human consumption?
A staggering 70%+ soybeans farmed in the United States are utilized to feed livestock, with poultry being the most important livestock industry, followed by hogs, dairy, beef, and aquaculture.
Processing soy for direct human consumption, such as tofu, soy milk, salad oil or frying oil, is the second-largest market for U.S. soybeans, accounting for around 19% of total U.S. soybean production. Biodiesel is a distant third market for soybeans, accounting for just around 4% of the U.S. soybean harvest. (Source)
The plant-based diet trend has been growing in popularity for years, but is it having any significant impact on the soy demand?
The answer is yes. While the overall consumption of meat and dairy products continues to increase, consumers are beginning to migrate away from animal-based products and plant-based alternatives. Many causes have contributed to this transformation, including health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns.
In addition to this shift away from conventional animal products, the rise of Veganism—a lifestyle choice that excludes all animal products from one’s diet—has also contributed to increased demand for soybeans.
Soybeans are used as a source of protein in many vegan diets, which has helped drive up demand over time. Soy based protein powders have gained much traction too in the recent years. Combined, these two factors have led to increased demand for soybeans over the past few years.
Which Country Exports the most Soybeans ?
Brazil: 90.5 Million Metric Tons in 2021-22
Who does US Export Soybeans to ?
US Exported nearly 14.15 billion metric tons of Soybeans to China in 2021
Which US states produce the most Soybeans?
Illinois produced 605 million bushels of soybeans in 2020, making it the leading soybean producer in the United States.
What Country Buys the most Soybeans ?
With an annual import volume of around 97 million metric tonnes, China was the top importer of soybeans in 2021-22.
Why Is Soy Bad For The Environment?
Soy is a staple crop in Brazil and Argentina, but does soy cause deforestation ?
The Answer is Yes! In fact, soy farming is one of the largest drivers of deforestation across the globe.
Production of soybeans has taken a heavy toll on the environment. While most of this deforestation occurred in Brazil, researchers found that more than half of all deforestation in Argentina was linked to soybean production. The following data proves the kind of impact soy plantation has on our forests and the ecosystems thriving within.
According to the Brazilian government’s Prodes deforestation satellite monitoring system’s recent statistics, about 220,000 square kilometers of area was deforested in the Amazon and Cerrado rainforests combined between 2006 and 2017. About 10 per cent of the deforested land was then used for soy farming.
Further, Cropland expansion, mostly for soy, in South America was the primary cause of deforestation between 2001 and 2004, accounting for 17% of overall forest loss during that time period.
This has a noticeable impact on climate change—but beyond that, it also impacts animal species in those areas. Many animals rely on specific trees for food and shelter, and when those trees are cut down, they can’t survive.
As an annual crop, soy plants only produce one yield in each life cycle and are virtually unresponsive to fertilizers. This is simple: more soy has to be planted to increase yield and meet demand, which requires more land.
Large expanses of rainforest are being chopped down and replaced with soy fields to supply the rising demand for soy products. This causes vast amounts of deforestation, which significantly impacts the environment by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Besides the apparent harmful impact deforestation has on wildlife and the environment, it also contributes to global warming. Soy cultivation accounts for 29 percent of deforestation-related greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, while cattle ranching accounts for the remaining 71 percent.
While it’s true that soybeans are a nutritional powerhouse and can be used to make all kinds of products, from tofu to veggie burgers, their production has devastating effects on our environment.
2. Carbon Emissions
The production of soybeans has become increasingly controversial due to their contribution to carbon emissions. Soybeans are one of the most heavily cultivated crops globally, and their production has been linked to deforestation and other severe environmental impacts. Soybeans are also processed into biodiesel fuel and industrial products, which is adversely linked to GHG emissions.
One of the primary sources of soybean cultivation emissions is deforestation caused by large-scale farming operations requiring huge land to grow crops. Bolivia, for example, has one of the highest per capita GHG emissions in the world while being one of South America’s least economically developed countries.
In addition to this problem, soybean production requires heavy pesticides and herbicides, which can be harmful to humans who live near farms where these chemicals are used frequently.
Furthermore, increased carbon emissions caused by deforestation and chemical use during production processes, transportation also contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect associated with soybean production processes as well as related industries like biodiesel fuel manufacturing facilities where ethanol is made from corn or cassava starch (which can also be produced from soybean oil).
3. Loss of Biodiversity
Soy impact on environment in several ways. In Brazil and Argentina, where most Soy is grown, the industry has profoundly affected biodiversity. The two countries are home to more than 85% of the world’s soybean production and are responsible for nearly 90% of global exports. So, when you see a product that contains soy or soybean oil, chances are it was grown in one of these countries.
It is responsible for the disappearance of native forest cover to make way for farmland. These forests have been cut down at an alarming rate—an area equivalent to approximately 100 football fields per minute.
Between 2001 and 2010, South America lost nearly 4 million hectares of forest every year, mainly for soy and cattle farming. This trend obviously has heavily impacted the native species in these regions.
The loss of these forests means that many species are being driven to extinction, including several types of birds that depend on them for survival. Additionally, many types of animals that live in these forests will become endangered if they continue to lose their habitats at such an alarming rate.
This destruction is simple: Soybean requires large amounts of land and water resources to produce—and there aren’t enough resources available to support its growth without destroying surrounding ecosystems.
4. Negative Impact on Soil
Soy production is highly mechanised and demands extensive irrigation. Soybean farming has a negative impact on soil in many ways.
The first is through pesticides, which can be toxic to the soil. These pesticides kill pests such as insects, weeds, and fungi that can hurt soybean crops. The issue is that they may also harm helpful species like earthworms and bacteria, which help break down organic materials into plant nutrition.
Another way soybean farming negatively impacts soil is by reducing its nutrient content. Soybeans require a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, which leaches into nearby waterways and causes algal blooms. This can lead to fish kills or make the water unsafe for swimming or drinking.
Finally, there is evidence that soybean production increases erosion due to increased plowing and tillage practices needed for growing this crop.
5. Exhaustion of Natural Water Resources
The exhaust of natural water resources due to soy farming is a major environmental problem. Soybean cultivation requires large amounts of water. It’s estimated that it takes about 300 litres of water to make one liter of soy milk.
This is because soybeans are legumes and must be planted in flooded fields. In addition, Soy requires more water than other crops because it takes longer to mature and needs more nutrients than other crops do.
As a result, soy farming often involves drawing from nearby rivers, streams, and lakes to irrigate the fields where it grows. The overuse of this resource has resulted in the depletion of natural water supplies.
Aquifers are being depleted at a frightening rate, and many rivers have dried up completely. The lack of water in these areas has led to the extinction of many species of fish and other animals and created problems for humans who rely on these resources for drinking and bathing.
The effects caused by soy farming on natural water resources are irreversible, so we must take action now or face dire consequences later on down the line.
Is Soy Worse For The Environment Than Meat?
Soy is a popular meat alternative for vegans and vegetarians alike. But is soy worse than meat for the environment? Does it live up to its reputation as a more environmentally-friendly way to get protein?
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
While soy production may be better for the environment than meat production, there are still significant environmental impacts associated with the practice.
Soy farming in the Amazon rainforest resulted in approximately 10% of the destruction during 2006 – 2017. While ~70% of the deforestation happened can be attributed to cattle ranching. This implies, although cattle farming may have a greater negative impact towards the environment, soy farming is not entirely clean either.
In addition, soybean cultivation is not without its environmental challenges: It requires the use of pesticides and fertilizers that can harm ecosystems in the surrounding area. On top of that, most soybeans are genetically modified (GMOs), which means they’ve been engineered to resist certain pests or diseases. GMOs are controversial because there isn’t enough research on their long-term effects on humans or other living things.
As End Consumers, What Can We Do to Mitigate Environmental Impacts of Soy?
1. Try to Shrink Soy Demand
We require Soy in our diets for numerous reasons. It is a staple for many foods, including meat and dairy products. Soy is also used as an alternative to animal feed and an additive to processed foods. However, it has been shown that the cultivation of Soy has negative environmental impacts on our planet and its inhabitants. As consumers, we can do our part by shrinking our demand for soy products by following certain practices.
i. Prioritize Alternative Livestock Fodder
Soy is used in various products, from animal feed to tofu and soy sauce. It is one of the top two crops globally (alongside corn), covering about 20-30% of its arable land. We can try to shrink this demand by switching to other types of animal feed, such as grasses and legumes. This would encourage the production of other healthier foods for people and better for the environment.
The USDA has reported that replacing soybeans with other plants could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 48%. This could also help lower pollution levels, improve soil quality, and reduce erosion in areas where soybeans are grown.
ii. Buy Only Organically Grown Soy
We should try to shrink our demand for Soy by buying only organically grown soy products. Organic farming practises are better for the environment than conventional farming practises. Conventional farming practices because they use fewer pesticides and fertilizers, which means they’re less likely to contaminate soil and water resources.
Organic farming also tends to be more labor-intensive than conventional farming—meaning it requires more workers onsite and uses more transportation fuel. And that means that when you buy organic, you’re supporting an industry that’s better for the environment in many ways.
iii. Replace Soy-based foods with other Plant-based Options
We can try to shrink soy demand by replacing soy-based foods with other plant-based options. In fact, it might actually be a better option for some to switch soy protein for other plant-based alternatives.
For instance, given that there is some research suggesting linking consistent intake of soy protein to decrease in testosterone levels in men should alone make other near-complete plant-based protein sources attractive alternatives to consider. You can find my analysis of amino acid profiles for popular vegan foods including chickpeas, seitan, hemp, brown rice, quinoa and green peas for reference.
Another important step to find worthy replacements is to is learn what’s in our food. We should look for foods that are labeled “certified organic” or “non-GMO” (genetically modified organisms). These labels will help you know that what you’re eating hasn’t been altered, so it’s a safer bet for your health and the environment.
Once you’ve figured out what products contain GMOs and non-GMO ingredients, it’s time to start making swaps! You could replace tofu with vegetables like mushrooms or cauliflower or swap soy milk with almond milk or rice milk.
For a more thorough read on your options as a vegan, go through this meal plan guide I put together for vegan fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders. I’ve included many whole and near-complete plant protein sources.
These swaps won’t just help reduce your impact on the environment—they’ll also save you money!
2. Grow GM Soy for a Higher Yield Per Sq. foot
As end consumers, we can help mitigate Soy’s environmental impacts by growing G.M. soy for a higher yield per square foot.
To ensure that our food supply is consistent and reliable, we need to grow more food on less land. We’ve been able to do this by increasing the yield per square foot of crops through genetic engineering. By genetically modifying crops like soybeans, we can increase their productivity while reducing their impact on the environment.
The benefits of G.M. crops are substantial: they require fewer pesticides and fertilizer, reduce soil erosion and runoff into waterways, and improve soil quality by reducing nutrient losses in the soil. They also need less water than non-GM crops. The G.M. seeds have had an 18% increase in yields per acre since 1996.
Verdict | Is Soy Farming Bad for the environment?
Soy farming has been a subject of debate for many years, and it’s not hard to see why. Some people believe that soy farming has a negative impact on the environment, while others say that it can be beneficial in certain situations.
The truth is that there’s no easy answer. It totally depends on what kind of Soy you’re talking about, how much you eat, where you get it from, and how sustainably it was grown.
We use so much soy in our diets—and it’s easy to see why: Soybeans are rich in protein & contain all 9 essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Soybeans are also rich in fiber and minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc.
But it’s not just about health—we also love the taste!
However, some people believe that soy farming has adverse effects on the environment because it uses up lots of land, water, and fertilizers. However, there are ways to mitigate the damage done by soy farms so that we can still enjoy their benefits while keeping our planet healthy.
For example, it’s possible to use less fertilizer on soy crops to reduce the pollution they release into the air and water supply. The environmental impact of soy farming can also be reduced if farmers use fewer pesticides on their crops or switch from conventional farming practices to organic ones.