Eating 'Amazon-friendly' soya

Last updated Wednesday 4 June 2008

Thought soya was an innocent food for vegetarians? It's feeding climate change too.

Soya is best known as a low-fat alternative to meat and is present in 60% of all processed foods. When you consider the vast and growing amount required to feed livestock, you can see why the soya bean is eating into the rainforests and contributing to climate change.

Soya farming is one of the main causes of tropical deforestation, which currently produces a fifth of global climate change. By 2050, the Amazon alone will release an amount of carbon that's equivalent to four whole year's worth of global annual emissions.

The lion's share (about 80%) of soya ends up fattening our meat animals, but vegetarians aren't entirely off the hook. A small proportion of soya ends up on our plates as tofu, yoghurt, cheese and in many other processed foods.

The best way to reduce demand for climate-unfriendly soya is to eat less meat, while soya-lovers should choose 'Amazon-friendly' varieties for a guilt-free snack.

Read more below
Photo: Eating 'Amazon-friendly' soya

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How will it make a difference?

Reducing demand for soybeans that have been unsustainably farmed by eating less meat, dairy and soy-based foods could help reduce deforestation. Unsustainable logging threatens biodiversity and causes tropical forests - which normally soak up CO2 - to become a source of climate change. This is due to decaying vegetation, burning trees and disturbed soil releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

  • In the last decade, land dedicated to soya farming in Latin America more than doubled to 40 million hectares (an area the size of Germany) making it the largest area on Earth for a single crop
  • WWF estimates that some soy fields can lose up to eight tonnes of carbon-rich soil per hectare every year due to soil erosion. That's more than the weight of an African bull elephant
  • Transporting soya bean animal feed from Brazil to Europe emits annually 32,000 tonnes of CO2 - equivalent to 25,237 return flights from London Heathrow to New York - according to one report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (Livestock's Long Shadow, 2006)
  • People living in the developed world account for five times as much soybean per person as elsewhere - but overwhelmingly via our consumption of farmed livestock, rather than soya products

Human rights are affected too, as forest peoples are being displaced by farms. There's also a problem with slavery in the soya-growing Amazon region, where one campaigner, Father Ricardo Rezende, estimates that a quarter of a million slaves operate. Unfortunately, these complex human rights issues cannot be resolved solely by reduced demand for soya.

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What's stopping me?

Pub Fact

  • The world soybean harvest reached a record 214 million tons in 2005
  • Brazil produces 25 per cent of global soya beans and is the largest exporter
  • Soybean farming originated in China 5000 years ago - but nowadays it imports almost three-quarters of its soy
  • In 2005, soybean oil accounted for 92 percent of the 250 million liters of biodiesel made in the United States
  • According to the David Pimental at the University of Cornell, the amount of grain eaten by livestock in the United States could happily feed about 800 million people
  • The Stern Review suggests that preventing deforestation is one of the most cost-effective ways we have to reduce our emissions
  • World soya production tripled between 1984 and 2004
  • One of the first well-recognized soy products was a 'soy' automobile panel made by Henry Ford in 1933
  • Up to three-quarters of Brazil's climate change emissions comes from deforestation
  • An area of the Amazon the size of five football pitches has been lost every minute over the last 10 years according to Greenpeace
  • At the current rate of deforestation, tropical rain forests could virtually disappear as functioning ecosystems within 100 years, according to the Nature Conservancy
  • One days' deforestation is equivalent to the carbon footprint of eight million people flying to New York
  • On average, humans get about 48% of their calories from grains, a share that has declined just slightly, from 50%, over the last four decades
  • Eight countries provide 97% of global soya
  • The European Union bought almost half of Brazil's soy export crop in 2006

"Soya's healthy though, isn't it?"

Studies suggest that eating soya can reduce blood cholesterol and risk of Alzheimer's disease - and prevent balding and prostate cancer in men. On the other hand, too much soya could reduce fertility in women, according to the BBC. Read the BBC article.

"If neither meat nor soy-based foods are good for the climate, then what can I eat?!"

Thanks to the 2006 Soy Moratorium, several retailers have refused to source soya from newly-deforested land in the Amazon. It's work in progress (in fact, Greenpeace announced in March 2008 that deforestation in the Amazon has actually risen despite the moratorium) but soya produced by these retailers is the most climate-friendly on offer. Top up on soya and meat at Alpro, ASDA, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, McDonald's, Morrisons, Ritter-Sport, Sainsbury's, Tegut, Tesco, Waitrose, Cadbury, Carrefour and Iceland. Read the BBC article.

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What's the debate?

Most of the animal feed made from soya beans ends up in the bellies of chickens and pigs, which suggests that the best way to reduce demand for soya is by cutting down on these meats. Paradoxically, alternative meat animals like cows and sheep eat less climate-unfriendly soya but have much more serious issues of their own - like flatulence. Read more about it in our article on eating less meat and dairy.

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How do I do it?

  • Consider eating less meat and dairy. Livestock eat the lion's share of farmed soya
  • Make sure your tofu, tempeh, soya milk or soya meat substitute is 'Amazon-friendly' (see "What's stopping me?" for shops that source sustainable soya)
  • Check out other, less environmentally-destructive beans and pulses, e.g chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans
  • If you drink soya milk in energy-intensive Tetrapaks, make sure you recycle them
  • Choose foods that are both local and seasonal, where possible

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Annie, Midlands 2009-03-21

I'm vegetarian and get part of my protein source from soya. Also being menopausal it's excellent combating the effects with no drugs! So why dont farmers produce crops in this country? Polytunnels seam to be taking over anyway.

Baz, Shrewsbury 2009-02-08

I am a vegetarian by proxy, I let the beast eat the grass on my behalf, it's digestive system is far better suited to this diet than mine. I do also eat vegitables as part of a balaced diet. On the subject of SOYA, I will avoid it if I can. Our friends at Monsanto have ensured that most of the soya grown today is Genetically Modified, this might be good for the soya but what about the consumer. Also Monsanto would seek to hold a monopoly on that crop and its seed stock. This cannot be a good situation in which to be as the monopoly holder can name his price for the product. This is not good for anyone, except the monopoly holder. I think we should all boycot soya and keep the food chain free of contamination.

Joey, Wales 2008-11-22

It's funny how this article starts off as anti-vegetarian, but then it ends up shooting itself in the foot by acknowledging the fact that livestock eat more soya than humans ever could. Vegetarians always will be doing the best for the environment.

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Biodiesel is fuel generated from vegetable oil that can be used pure or blended with regular diesel (diesel produced by refining crude oil) in conventional, unmodified diesel engines. It is not the same as waste vegetable oil, otherwise known as 'unwashed biodiesel', which requires engine modification.
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon is the fourth most common chemical element in the universe, and carbon compounds - in other words, carbon chemically combined with other elements - are the basis of all known life forms on earth. Pure carbon appears in many apparently diverse forms, from diamond to graphite to charcoal, but it is much more commonly found in substances such as coal, oil, natural gas, wood and peat that we use for fuel. When we burn these substances to provide energy - either directly in our homes as heat, or in power stations to produce electricity - the combustion process produces 'oxides' of carbon, including the gas CO2.
Carbon footprint
A person's carbon footprint (or that of a particular household, business or entire community) refers to the CO2 for which they are responsible - whether directly, via their home energy use, their transport use, or indirectly via the embodied energy in the products and services they buy and use. You can work out your carbon footprint using calculators such as the Government's Act On CO2 Calculator.
An ecosystem is the term applied to the interaction of a community of different living (organic) species - plants, animals and micro-organisms - with non-living (or inorganic) factors, such as atmospheric gases, temperature and light. When the balance of an ecosystem is changed - by the introduction of new elements or dramatic rises in one or more of them - the normal functioning of the ecosystem can be disrupted.
Energy intensive
An energy-intensive process uses a great deal of energy - and therefore produces high emissions - relative to its useful output. As an example, beef production, has recently been cited as an especially energy-intensive industry, while tumble dryers are energy-intensive appliances. Products that are manufactured in an energy-intensive way are also said to be 'emissions heavy'. navigation


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