The story of soy

As soy production rapidly expands, our ecosystems feel the pressure

soy field

Behind beef, soy is the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation worldwide. From the Northern Great Plains of the U.S. to the Amazon of Brazil, forests, grasslands, and wetlands are being plowed up to make room for more soy production. When these native habitats are lost, it leaves wildlife without homes, accelerates climate change, leads to more water pollution, disrupts rain, and prolongs drought.

As the global population grows and incomes rise, demand for meat—and the soy-based feed used to raise livestock—will increase. WWF works with soy farmers, traders, processors, manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, investors, and other critical stakeholders around the world to eliminate deforestation from soy supply chains and to promote innovative practices that yield more soy with fewer resources and impacts on the environment.

The interconnectedness between impacts in one part of the globe and consumer choices thousands of miles away are illustrated by the story of soy:

1. Expanding soy threatens South America’s most important habitats

Straddling Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, the Cerrado and Chaco are two of South America’s richest landscapes.

Covering more than 20% of Brazil, the Cerrado is South America’s largest savannah. It shelters 5% of all the living species on Earth and one in 10 Brazilian species. There are over 10,000 species of plants, almost half of which are found nowhere else in the world.

The Chaco is the largest dry forest in South America, home to 3500 bird species, 220 reptiles and amphibians, and 150 mammals—including 18 species of armadillo alone.

Along with the Amazon rainforest, these ecosystems are threatened by expanding production of soy.


2. The Cerrado and Chaco are rapidly disappearing

The Cerrado once covered an area half the size of Europe: now, its native habitats and rich biodiversity are being destroyed much faster than the neighboring rainforest. Around half the native savannah and forest of the Cerrado has been converted to agriculture since the late 1950s. Nearly one-quarter of the Gran Chaco in Argentina and about one-fifth of it in Paraguay disappeared between 1976 and 2011, yet agricultural expansion continues.

As these ecosystems are lost, so are the wildlife they support and the vital ecological services they provide, like clean water, carbon sequestration and healthy soils. Species that are threatened include the jaguar, maned wolf and giant anteater, but also many other plants and animals that are unique to the Cerrado and Chaco.

Not only fragile ecosystems and species are feeling the strain. Habitat destruction also threatens the way of life of many indigenous people and other communities who rely on forests, natural grasslands and savannahs for their livelihoods.


3. Worldwide demand threatens the Cerrado and Chaco

High in protein and energy, soy is a key part of the global food supply. Mainly used as animal feed, soy has become one of the world’s biggest crops due to rising demand worldwide for meat products. But its growth has come at a cost. Vast areas of forest, savannah and grassland have been cleared over the last few decades as soy production has expanded. In total, the area of land in South America devoted to soy grew from 42 million acres in 1990 to 114 million acres in 2010, mainly on land converted from natural ecosystems. And forests and other natural ecosystems are coming under ever greater pressure as production and demand continues to grow.

Soy production is expected to increase rapidly as economic development leads to higher animal protein consumption, especially in developing and emerging countries.


4. Much of the world’s livestock relies on South American soy

Europe’s intensive livestock sector relies on soy, most of it imported from South America, to meet demand for meat and dairy products. Demand for soy within the EU uses an area of 32 million acres in South America, out of a total of 114 million acres of soy production. This is equivalent to 90% of Germany’s entire agricultural area. The main European importers of soy are countries with large industrial-scale pig and chicken production.

Today’s fastest-growing soy importer is China, which uses the crop for animal feed and cooking oil. China's meat consumption is rapidly increasing, and projections indicate a steady steep long-term increase of soy imports, which is likely to increase pressure on the Amazon as well as the Cerrado, Chaco and other threatened ecosystems.

In the US, soy is also used widely for animal feed, but most is produced domestically.


5. Sustainable production and consumption can reduce pressure on nature

Food companies have an opportunity and responsibility to source soy that is produced without destroying forests, savannahs, grasslands, and other native habitats.

Consumers should be mindful of the environmental impacts of their diets, and in particular the relationship between soy and animal products. Around 75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. While many people imagine soy is eaten mainly by vegetarians, most of it is consumed indirectly in the form of chicken, pork, beef and farmed fish as well as eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. If people in high-income countries consumed animal protein at levels in line with nutritionists’ recommendations, it could help reduce the pressure on natural ecosystems.