Working in the sustainable food sector, I’m often asked about soy. What exactly is soy? Is soy contributing to deforestation and habitat loss? Is eating soy good for you or not? Why is soy a contentious issue? In this week’s food blog, I’ll explore these issues and show you how eating soy can be part of a healthy, sustainable diet.
You might not be aware, but soy is probably a big part of your diet already! It’s a ‘hidden’ ingredient in many of our animal based food products including meat, fish, dairy and eggs. It’s so widely used as an animal feed that indirectly we each consume around 61kg of soy per year!
Earlier this year, we published our soy scorecard to compare what companies were doing on soy. (See our Soy story blog for more information).This scorecard, as well as the ‘hidden soy’ infographic, explains how our ever-increasing demand for soy is linked to high environmental impacts. The land used for soy production has often been converted from extremely biodiverse forests, savannahs and grasslands – endangering valuable habitats and species such as jaguars and armadillos.
The environmental threats that are linked to the production of unsustainable soy are so urgent and immediate that it puts unique ecosystems in peril of disappearance. This is why WWF asks companies to source and produce products based on certified soy.
Why do we produce so much soy in the first place?
Soy is a highly productive and high protein crop. Animals and people need protein to build and repair tissue and muscles, and soy has is an efficient crop to feed livestock. About 75% of the soy produced around the world is used for animal feed, mainly poultry and pigs here in the UK. As such, our soy production is intrinsically linked to how much animal products – meat, dairy and eggs – we eat.
Soy production is also very demanding on other resources, such as water. For example, the global water footprint for one litre of cow’s milk is 1,050 litres water! This water is used at the field stage of cattle feed and while the cow is reared.
It’s a different story if we look at the soy we eat directly. As mentioned, soy is an excellent source of protein, double that of pork and treble that of eggs. So, if we cut out a step in the supply chain, such as the cow to produce milk, we would need less soy to get the same amount of protein. It also reduces the use of water. The water footprint of one litre of soy milk is only 297 litres – that’s less than a third compared to the footprint of one litre cow’s milk! This water is primarily used during the field stage of the soy bean. So, if it’s protein we are concerned about, we should be eating the soy directly and not use so much as animal feed!
To feed the planet and to reduce the environmental impacts of our food, we believe we must use more of our crops to feed people rather than livestock. This is why we support Forum for the Future’s Protein Challenge 2040 – an initiative that works for a shift towards more plant-based diets.
We recommend a few simple changes that can help you lead a healthier and more sustainable life. Following our Livewell principles is an easy way to do this.
In particular, we encourage everyone to eat more plants and moderate their meat consumption – white and red. This simple swap will reduce the land and carbon footprint of the food we eat. And, the good news is that we’ll be healthier too! The health benefits of a plant-based diet are well-established: soy is packed with protein and low in saturated fats.
So, by adding soy to our diets – whole beans, or crushed and incorporated into tofu, tempeh, soya milk or soy sauce – we’re well on our way to a healthy and more sustainable lifestyle.
Co-written with Elly Peters – Sustainable Food and Agriculture Officer at WWF-Belgium