Soya production is directly responsible for nearly five times the amount of deforestation than palm oil.
When you think of soya consumption, you think of vegans. Soya milk and tofu are embraced as delicious and nutritious products in their own right across many regions in the global South, but in the West have become attached to the vegan identity.
Additionally, soya is the base of several popular meat alternatives: texturised soya protein can be made into sausages and nuggets, and tempeh - fermented soya beans - consumption is gaining traction.
In the UK, increased innovation in the vegan foodscape saw a quarter of new products launched in 2019 carrying a vegan claim.
While this has been celebrated by the vegan community, with rising interest comes rising scrutiny. It may be true that meat-free consumers enjoy their soya, but has the global food industry become too reliant on soya production?
An increasing global population means even higher demands in an already strained food production system. Hence, we must ask: who is driving the demand for soya, and at what cost? Last month Greenpeace published its ‘Winging It’ report, which helps to provide clarity over these burning issues.
The UK directly imports over three million tonnes of soya a year, with an estimated thirty percent to sixty percent of this being from ‘sustainable’ sources.
As well as a disappointing overall percentage, it must also be noted that soya supply chains are notoriously difficult to monitor, so any guarantees of sustainability should not be taken at face value.
Currently, around one percent of the UK population is vegan, whilst the remaining 99 percent consume products from animals. Logistically, is it possible for vegans to be responsible for the surge in soya demand? Quite simply the answer is no. The issue of escalating soya production must sit somewhere else.
In 2018, nearly 70 percent of UK soya imports - two million tonnes - was in the form of soya meal – its primary purpose for animal feed.
Raising farmed animals costs less to farmers when they grow quickly and feeding them a high protein diet of soya meal does just that. This accelerated growth harms not just the animals, but also the planet.
A further 750,000 tonnes of soya beans are imported, but the majority of this will go on to be crushed for animal feed.
Chicken consumption in the UK has skyrocketed recently. Swapping out products from cows and pigs for chicken may seem like the environmentally friendly option for some, as it could lower direct UK greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
However, this completely disregards certain stages in the supply chain which have devastating impacts in other parts of the world.
In addition to this, the UK imports over 200,000 tonnes of soya in the form of soya oil, which is a tiny amount in comparison to above figures and is used for many industrial processes.
Finally, to add further to this problem, because the UK currently consumes so many products from animals we cannot keep up with production demand.
Hence, by importing products from animals we also indirectly import even more soya which is embedded in the supply chain. This is thought to be at least a further 600,000 tonnes.
Meeting the UK’s huge demand for soya requires nearly 1.5 million hectares of land, which is larger than Northern Ireland.
The large majority of this – more than 70 percent – is from countries in South America such as Argentina and Paraguay, where the mass cultivation of soya is driving deforestation, species extinction and wildfires.
To put this into perspective, the use of palm oil within various industries has recently come under public scrutiny for unsustainable practices.
When Iceland released its moving Rang-tan advert in 2018, highlighting the effects that mass cultivation of palm can have on dwindling Orangutan populations, there was public uproar. Petitions were launched to ban or reduce its use, gaining hundreds of thousands of signatures.
In the aftermath, an increasing number of brands, retailers and manufacturers proudly displayed their ‘palm oil free’ slogans as medals, whilst concurrently ignoring a far more destructive product.
The most recent data available shows that, soya imports account for 47 percent of the total European Union deforestation footprint compared to 10 percent for palm oil. Hence, soya production is directly responsible for nearly five times the amount of deforestation than palm oil.
If the food industry is serious about sustainability and not just tricking customers into thinking they are, they need to reassess their entire business models, and not just remove one of the many destructive ingredients.
Through the efforts to call out unsustainable palm oil practices, the public has already shown that they want to keep our rainforests and the animals within them thriving.
But palm oil is not the primary culprit: the blame lies on soya and there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that its primary use is to feed farmed animals and produce meat.
Deforestation is not an inevitable catastrophe. We, as individuals, are active participants to the world we live in and have a huge collective power to shape issues that we are passionate about.
Organisations such as Donau Soja support the sustainable development of Europe’s farming by improving both the production and use of protein for European consumers.
This helps to create thriving food businesses who are founded on regional, sustainable and GMO-free soy production. Even large companies can thrive on this ethos – Alpro source their soya beans direct from farmers in areas where soya had been grown for many years, never compromising on sustainability or traceability.
If you’re concerned about deforestation, a vegan diet is the easiest and most effective way to prevent a plethora of environmental damage in all parts of the world. Change starts from within: it’s time to take responsibility.
Louisianna Waring is the insight and commercial policy officer at The Vegan Society. She has a background in both food policy and animal science and is passionate about animal rights. Interested in veganism and the environment? Why not take the seven-day planet-saving vegan pledge at www.vegansociety.com/plateup