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Soy: The Biggest Food Crop We Never Talk About

It has slipped quietly into much of what we consume—and its production is straining ecosystems around the world.

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280 million acres were used to produce soy in 2013-2014 (an area roughly the size of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined). Soy has been the fastest-growing global crop in recent decades; the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that its production will nearly double again by 2050.

In the US, soy is second only to corn in crop size. The country—now the world’s biggest producer of soy—used more than 75 million acres of land to grow the plant in 2013-2014. That’s an area larger than the state of Arizona.

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Soy farm in rural Ohio

Show me the soy

A whopping 75% of the soy produced worldwide in 2013-2014 became animal feed. Here’s how much soy went into making some of the most common animal products on our plates:

Chicken

Soy in a 3-oz. serving: 1.87 oz

Pork chop

Soy in a 4-oz.serving: 2.74 oz

Hamburger

Soy in a 4-oz. serving: 1.57 oz

Omelette

Soy in a two-egg (3.09-oz. total) serving: 3.12 oz*

Glass of milk

Soy in an 8-oz. serving: 0.22 oz

Cheese

Soy in a 3.53-oz. serving: 1.11 oz*

*Estimate based on US egg consumption data and on information in Hidden Soy, a report on soy consumption in the UK

Into the Wild

The rising demand for soybeans has encouraged farmers large and small around the world to plant more of the crop. Unfortunately, that cultivation is creeping into native forests and grasslands—among them Brazil’s Cerrado and the US’s Northern Great Plains—threatening vulnerable wildlife and increasing carbon emissions through land conversion.

A 2015 University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that more than 7 million acres of uncultivated land—mostly grasslands—in the US were turned into farmland between 2008 and 2012. The conversions for soy and corn crops alone could have released as much CO2 as 34 coal-fired power plants running for an entire year.

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Aerial view of an unpaved road dividing a soy (Glycine max) monoculture from the native Cerrado, in the region of Ribeiro Gonçalves, Piauí, Brazil.

Future Tense

Field to Market: the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is an initiative that represents collaboration among US farmers, traders, food processors, retailers, conservation organizations, and academic and public institutions to more sustainably produce the crops we need. The initiative's members—including WWF—are working to improve water quality, conserve natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ensure farmers' livelihoods while protecting more natural habitat.

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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