One of the many criticisms of the vegan diet is that soya production is responsible for a large amount of deforestation. It is reasonable to think that as vegans we are contributing to the demand of soya production due to the relative abundance of soya products in our diet including soya milk, yoghurt, tofu, and tempeh, but we do not deserve the blame.
After reading this blog post, I hope you understand why vegan diets are not environmentally destructive as a result of the soy consumption, and instead are dramatically better for the environment than the omnivorous diet.
As always, links to sources can be accessed by hovering over the statement (I’m still trying to work out how to make them a different colour, any WordPress experts help me out!).
Let’s start off with why the soybean plant is particularly bad for the environment.
Why is Soy Bad for the Planet?
Soya Cultivation Has Moved To Fragile Environments
Global soybean production has more than doubled in the past two decades, and while some of this demand has been reached by improvements in yield, much of it has come from expanding soybean cultivation into new areas, such as tropical forests in South America. Tropical forest soils were once not considered viable for soybeans however advances in farming methods and crop varieties made it possible to grow soybeans profitably in new environments, including tropical forests. Very quickly, Brazil became the second leading soybean-producing country in the world and soybeans became one of the leading drivers of deforestation.
Within Brazil, soy production has also been moving into the biodiversity hotspot, the Cerrado, a region of tropical savanna and woodlands. Nearly 60,000 square kilometers have been cleared for agriculture in the Cerrado since 2003, and about a fifth of that land is being used for soy, endangering the 3,000 plants, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibian species that are unique to the area.
The Cerrado is also not protected by the Soy Moratorium, a form of agreement from soybean processors and exporters in Brazil to refuse to buy soybeans produced on Amazon farmland deforested after 2006 (later amended to 2008). Despite concerns that the Moratorium simply led to the movement of soya cultivation elsewhere, it did prove successful in protecting Brazil: during the 2013-14 crop year, soybeans were found to account for less than 1% of total Amazon deforestation during the moratorium period. The fragile ecosystem of the Cerrado, and no doubt other areas in the world, are being damaged by the mass cultivation of soybeans.
Greenhouse Gas Emmissions
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. However, within the bigger picture, 29% of Brazil’s emissions are due to soy production, while the other 71% is down to cattle ranching.
Since the majority of soy consumed is imported, concerns around the environmental impact of this transportation are valid. However, most livestock production isn’t produced locally either, so let’s compare:
Eating tofu once or twice a week contributes 12kg to your annual greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to heating the average UK home for 2 days or driving 32 miles).
The same amount of dairy equates to four times as much, and beef contributes 50 times as much as tofu at 604kg (equivalent to driving 1,542 miles or heating your home for 95 days!). And, remember, less soy is needed to provide the same amount of calories and protein, so less vehicle space would be required.
Mass Consumption Requires Soil Intervention
Due to the growing demand of soybeans (as you’ll later find out is not from vegans, but meat-eaters), farmers have been pressured to increase yield to meet profits. This requires the intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, chemicals that contribute to polluted water bodies and contaminated water supplies. 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.
Soil Erosion, Degradation and Compaction
Mass cultivation of soybeans contributes to soil erosion and degradation, and despite new methods like conservation tillage to minimise this, lands classified as ‘highly erodible’ are still in use for soybean production. Because soy cultivation is highly mechanised, soil compaction is also a problem on many large soybean farms. Soil compaction leads to issues with water drainage and soil health, leading to poor plant growth and possible desertification.
The Majority of Global Soybean Supply is Grown in Just 3 Countries
The majority of the world’s soybean supply is grown in three countries: the USA (35%), Brazil (29%) and Argentina (18%). This means large areas of land would be cleared within a single location, affecting the surrounding ecosystems. Furthermore, in large soya plantations, soya is the only crop grown; this monoculture dramatically reduces the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Luckily, the soybean plant is a nitrogen-fixing plant, meaning it adds nitrogen back to the soil for the next crop to utilise. In some parts of USA where soy is grown in rotation with other crops because of this, reliance on fertilisers and pesticides is reduced and soy actually supports farmers in managing a common pest called blackgrass. It’s the mass monocultural plantations in fragile ecoystems such as those in South America which are the issue.
Why Eating Soy and Not Meat is The Solution
The Livestock Industry is the Largest Consumer of Soy
Frankly put, vegans are not to be blamed for the effect of soy because we’re only eating a fraction of it: 70-75% of global soya production is fed straight to livestock such as cattle and pigs with only 6% being used for human consumption (i.e. soy milk, tofu). The remaining soybean is processed into vegetable oil and non-edible industrial products such as biodiesel and inks .
The reason why soya is causing so much environmental damage is because we are growing mass quantities of it to feed the billions of animals bred for meat and dairy.
Less Land is Needed for the Same Amount of Protein From Soy Than Beef
According to the USDA, soybeans can be produced at 52. 5 bushels per acre, with each bushel holding 60 lbs of soy.
52.5 x 60 = 3150 dry soybeans per acre.
Soybeans protein content (dry) = 163.44 grams per pound
The protein content per acre of soybeans is 163.44 g x 3150 lb. = 514836 g per acre
The protein content per acre of beef is 95.34 g x 205 lb. = 19544.7 g per acre
Therefore, the same area of land used for soybean crops provides 15 times more protein than the same area of land used for grazing cows for beef. This means that less land is needed to produce a sufficient amount of protein-rich food to feed our population, ultimately resulting in less agricultural land needed and so less deforestation. And, soy will produce a healthier population. The soybean is the highest natural source of dietary fibre (whereas animal products contain no fibre), known to reduce our risk of chronic disease, meanwhile soybeans contain no cholesterol (whereas animal products are laden with it), known to increase our risk of chronic disease and early death.
It is More Efficient to Produce Soy Products Than Animal Products – Meaning Less Indirect Deforestation
Producing meat is more energy intensive than producing soybeans. 1 calorie of beef can take 27 times more energy to produce than soybeans. This energy has to come from somewhere, with over 8 litres of gasoline required to produce 1kg of grain-fed beef. It takes an estimated 2-3 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from soybeans, corn, or wheat compared to 54 calories of fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from beef. This energy production is contributing, albeit indirectly, to further deforestation and thus environmental destruction.
Unless We Eat Less Meat, It Will Get Worse
With the rising demand for animal products worldwide, especially in places such as China, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that soy production will continue to increase from around 276 million metric tons in 2013 to 390 million metric tons by 2050.
Considering the production of soya products only uses up 6% of the global production now, then reducing our consumption of animal products would free up a lot of space which is now being used to grow livestock feed. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, we need to eat more soy so less soy is produced, because the need to feed all those animals would be removed.
I hope this clears up a few things for you, from why soya production is particularly harmful to the environment to why, yet again, it is down to the consumption of animals, not the soy, that is the problem.
I think the most grating thing about the soya argument, though, is the fact even if tofu and soy milk were to blame, this does not qualify as a valid argument against veganism. Vegans do not live on soy. In fact, there are many vegans who are allergic to soy, who are still thriving. So if you are still adamant that the soybean is the root of all evil in the world, no one is making you eat it. I admit a lot of vegan processed foods do contain a lot of soy so it may be difficult when navigating vegan ‘mock meats’ for example,, but you can easily be a vegan who opts for oat milk over soy milk, or seitan rather than tempeh, or even a whole-food vegan who cuts out the processed stuff altogether.
Perhaps you fear soy not just because of the supposed environmental impact, but the oestrogen content. Look out for an upcoming blog post on dispelling the myth around soya and hormones, which is yet another argument which has no reason to fear tofu, or vegan diets.
The Conscious Medic