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Soy

Overview

Around the world, there is a surging demand for soy—the “king of beans.” Soy is a globally traded commodity produced in both temperate and tropical regions and serves as a key source of protein and vegetable oils. Since the 1950s, global soybean production has increased 15 times over. The United States, Brazil, and Argentina together produce about 80% of the world’s soy. China imports the most soy and is expected to significantly increase its import of the commodity.

Soy is pervasive in our lives. Not only are soybeans made into food products like tofu, soy sauce, and meat substitutes, but we also eat them in the form of soybean oil and soybean meal. Soybean meal is widely used as animal feed, so we humans consume much of it indirectly via our meat and dairy. Soybeans also reach our tables as oil—which represents around 27% of worldwide vegetable oil production. While its most common oil-based form is table oil, soy is increasingly used for biodiesel production.

Without proper safeguards, the soybean industry is causing widespread deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe. To ensure that soybean expansion does not further harm natural environments and indigenous communities, WWF is encouraging the development of better production practices. We call for transparent land-use planning processes and promote responsible purchasing and investment policies.

80%

The United States, Brazil, and Argentina together produce about 80% of the world’s soy.

Impacts

Large soy monoculture

As soybean agriculture sweeps across South America and elsewhere, fragile ecosystems such as rainforests and savannahs feel the strain. Of particular concern to WWF is the rapid expansion of soybean cultivation into the natural habitat of central Brazil. In some cases, smallholders growing crops for subsistence have been displaced by the expansion of soybean plantations.

Clearing natural habitat

In many tropical countries, extensive natural areas are destroyed to allow for the cultivation of soybeans. The majority of the increase in soy production in the last decade has been in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, where production has contributed to deforestation in important biodiversity hotspots. Vulnerable species in these places—many of which are found nowhere else in the world—are at high risk of extinction.

High rates of soil erosion associated with soybean cultivation have been reduced in recent years, though the rate is still several times greater than is sustainable. New methods like conservation tillage minimize erosion, but lands classified as "highly erodible" are still in use for soybean production. Because soy cultivation is highly mechanized, soil compaction is also a problem on many large soybean farms.

Water quality and use

Around the world, agrochemicals and fertilizers are used to efficiently manage soybean farms of increasing size and to reduce labor costs as production expands into areas with insufficient labor. These chemicals are a major source of nutrient pollution in rivers, lakes and estuaries. Additionally, unsustainable water use in irrigated systems can strain aquifers, such as the Ogallala Aquifer in North America and the Guarani Aquifer in South America.

Various aspects of soy production generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Tropical countries like Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay face emissions from deforestation and area conversion. The Brazilian Government estimates that carbon dioxide emissions associated with conversion of the Cerrado are equivalent to more than half the total emissions from the United Kingdom for 2009.

Social impacts

In Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, the concentration of farmland in the hands of a few has pushed small farmers and communities off the land and encouraged exploitation of workers. Survival International notes that expansion of agricultural and grazing land threatens 650,000 Brazilian Indians in more than 200 tribes.

Impacted Species & Places

What WWF Is Doing

Soy beans plantation

WWF works to support better production, improve policy, and transform markets. This means identifying areas that should be zoned out of production due to their high conservation value, while encouraging the establishment of production on available degraded lands. It also requires calling for transparent land-use planning processes and promoting responsible purchasing and investment policies in the sector.

Because of the threats of soy plantations to the environment, WWF helped establish the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) in 2005 as a forum for all parties involved with and affected by soy cultivation. The RTRS is a platform to develop solutions for responsible soy production, including the development of criteria for responsible production and sourcing of soy.

In 2009, the RTRS adopted preliminary voluntary production standards that require producers to take measures to protect the environment. These standards include prohibiting the conversion of areas with high conservation value and eliminating hazardous pesticides in soy farming. Unilever, Waitrose, ARLA Foods and Lantmannen have already made commitments to sourcing certified RTRS soy.

As China dramatically increases soy imports to more than 50% of current volumes by 2020, there is a short window of time to coordinate global efforts to protect what remains of the native savannas and forests in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Given China’s demand, focus should be brought on major soy crushers and traders.

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