Commodity series: Why soy must be scrutinised

Explainer / 5 May 2020

What does our latest Forest 500 assessment tell us about the soy trade?

by Theo Stanley

As global demand for meat and dairy products has grown exponentially in recent decades, so too has the soy industry. Some 98% of soybean meal, the main ingredient extracted from soybeans, is processed into animal feed, which means most of the soy we consume is hidden in other foods.

And there is a huge hidden cost of this for the planet. Soy production is one of the biggest drivers of tropical deforestation, especially in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, which between them produce over half the world’s soy.

In Brazil, deforestation linked to soy expansion primarily takes place in the biodiversity-rich Cerrado and Amazon regions. Between 2006 and 2017, more than 17,000km2 of Brazilian Cerrado were cleared for soy plantations, according to Trase, a joint initiative by Global Canopy and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

In Argentina, which provided just over half the UK’s annual soy imports in 2018, the Gran Chaco forest is being razed for soy. And soy production could well expand into the Paraguayan Chaco, following the government’s recent approval of a new drought-resistant soybean.

Deforestation in the Cerrado, Chaco and Amazon threatens biodiversity, increases the risk of human rights abuses as indigenous and rural communities’ lands are expanded into, and releases large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

How does soy end up in our food?

Soy is grown in vast plantations, generally by large production companies. Processing companies then turn the raw soy into soymeal, which is almost exclusively used for animal feed, and soy oil, which is used in food products and as biofuel. 

Image: The Little Book of Deforestation Drivers

The latest Forest 500 assessment, which analysed the 500 most influential companies and financial institutions operating in forest-risk supply chains, including 150 of the most influential companies in the soy supply chain, found that just under a third of the companies assessed for soy had a soy-related forest commitment.

It found that just 7 of the 27 most significant animal feed manufacturers assessed had soy-related deforestation commitments.

This means the vast majority of the most influential animal feed companies are taking no steps to avoid purchasing soy from deforested regions. One of the United States’ biggest agribusiness companies, Land O’Lakes, did not have a commitment.

Farmers who purchase animal feed from these companies are exposing themselves to deforestation. And supermarkets and high-street stores, or processed food manufacturers, who purchase the dairy, meat and eggs from these farmers, are similarly exposed.

Big name manufacturers are exposed to deforestation

To avoid purchasing soy-related products associated with deforestation, food manufacturers should make a commitment to source only deforestation-free soy, meat or animal derivatives, and ensure it is implemented.

Big-name food manufacturers without such commitments, include Hershey’s, Ferrero, Mondelez, the manufacturer of Oreos and Cadbury’s chocolate, and PepsiCo, which owns Dorito’s and Walkers.

Many retailers are similarly exposed. 26 of the 37 retailers assessed, including supermarkets and restaurants, did not have a soy-related deforestation commitment.

Companies without a deforestation commitment include Starbucks, Dunkin’ and Wendy’s.

Soy must be scrutinised

Companies we assessed have clearly recognised the importance of addressing deforestation in their supply chains, but appear to be turning a blind eye when it comes to soy.

Fifty-two companies – more than a third of the companies we assessed for soy – do have a forest-related commitment for palm oil but do not have a commitment for soy. These companies include Domino’s Pizza, Hershey’s and Starbucks, as well as Mondelez, PepsiCo and Costco.

This is worrying, but also offers a glimmer of hope. In the past decade, the palm oil industry has faced significant public scrutiny and, in response, many companies have taken action to address their exposure to deforestation. Heightened public awareness about environmental risks in soy supply chains could have a similar impact.

Banner image: allfoto via iStock

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