Soybeans are delicious yet sneaky. They can be found in many places that you might not expect, whether that’s your favorite chocolate bar, baked goods, or even the fuel tank of your car. The production of soy has boomed over the last few decades, as the bean has grown in popularity not only in traditional forms such as tofu and edamame but also as an ingredient in less obvious products such as biodiesel. Yet despite the boom in soy production and its growing list of uses, the largest consumer of soy remains the same: animal agriculture. The vast majority of soybeans are grown to be fed to the animals that we eat. All that soy has to be grown somewhere, and unfortunately, cultivation of this versatile food helps drive deforestation in some of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
WHAT ARE SOYBEANS?
Soybeans are one of the most prominent plant foods around the world. They play a key role in the nutrition of millions of people and can be found in a wide array of foods, processed and fresh. They are also commonly referred to as soja beans or soya beans. The plant was likely first domesticated in China, possibly as early as 7000 BC. Since then they have spread throughout the world and are now produced in huge quantities in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina.
WHAT ARE SOYBEANS USED FOR?
Most of us are fans of soybeans in one form or another. We consume them as tofu or in processed foods. And because soy plays a key role in feeding many of the animals that we raise to slaughter for food, a lot of meat-eaters are reliant on it without realizing. Many of us even use soybeans to fuel our cars.
FARMED ANIMAL FEED
Most of the protein in farmed animal feeds is derived from soy. Demand for soy has trended upward, with 77 percent of soy produced worldwide going to feed. Producing enough soy to meet demand has serious environmental implications. The production of soybeans has been the root cause of the destruction of more than 2.7m hectares of forest in Argentina. Because forests store a large amount of carbon in the leaves and roots of trees, their destruction releases a large quantity of greenhouse gasses.
Soybeans can be found in a variety of foods, ranging from those that are made almost exclusively out of soy to processed foods that aren’t likely to advertise their soy content to consumers.
- Soy sauce. Soy sauce is frequently used as a flavoring ingredient for a variety of east Asian dishes, though it originated in China. The ingredients in soy sauce are fairly basic and there are four key components: soy, salt, wheat, and water. The sauce is often eaten as an accompaniment to sushi and used as an ingredient to marinate tofu.
- Meat. Soy protein is used in the processing of many meat products. Soy is specifically used to increase the protein content, add flavoring, make processed meats a more desirable consistency, and capture any excess oil or water.
- Tofu. Tofu is a staple for many people, whether their diets are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous. Made out of only three ingredients — soybeans, water, and a coagulant — tofu is such a popular food thanks to its versatile nature and the fact that it can be turned into virtually any other food. There are tofu recipes for everything from traditional steamed tofu to vegan BBQ ribs!
- Edamame beans. Edamame beans are immature soybeans that are often enjoyed in salads or steamed and eaten directly out of their shells with a bit of salt. Like mature soybeans, edamame beans are a decent source of vegan protein with 17g in one cup.
- Chocolate and other sweets. Soybeans, or more specifically soy lecithin, a fat byproduct from the soy oil production process, can be found on the ingredients lists of many of our favorite chocolate and baked goods. The ingredient is useful because it acts as an emulsifier, helping to combine oil and water, and as a surfactant, allowing you to mix liquids into dry ingredients more smoothly.
- Some beverages and whipped toppings. Soybeans can be soaked and turned into soy milk. Many cafes and coffee shops offer soy milk as their main alternative to dairy milk, making the delicious beverage increasingly accessible while on the go. Soy milk can also be made into whipped topping easily at home.
- Industrial uses. Over the last several decades soybeans have been increasingly used in a range of non-food, industrial items, often replacing petrochemicals. Among these uses are the production of rubber, plastics, adhesives, and lubricants. Part of the appeal of using soybeans as an ingredient stems from the fact that soybeans can be grown in a single year, whereas alternative ingredients are often not renewable.
- Biodiesel. Soy oil is often a key ingredient in biodiesel, which is usually formed via a reaction between a vegetable oil (or animal fat) and ethanol or methanol. Don’t think this means you can just use soy oil in the place of diesel; that will damage your engine by causing carbon deposits to build up.
WHAT IS MOST SOY USED FOR?
The vast majority of soy, a whopping 77 percent, is used for feeding farmed animals. Of this, about 37 percent is fed to chickens, 20.2 percent is fed to pigs, and 5.6 percent is used to feed farmed fish, with the remainder being fed to other species. Direct human consumption in the form of oil, tofu, tempeh, or other soy products accounts for 20 percent of soy use. Industry uses, for example biodiesel and lubricant, account for the remaining roughly 4 percent of soy.
WHICH COUNTRIES PRODUCE THE MOST SOY?
From its original domestication in China more than 9000 years ago, soy has increased exponentially in both popularity and in its uses, and has seen a recent surge in production.
SOYBEAN WORLD PRODUCTION
After reaching a peak of 359.5m tonnes in 2017, soybean production fell briefly before the pandemic to just over 336m tonnes, and in 2020 had rebounded to 353.4m tonnes. Despite the minor drop in production, the amount of soy produced in 2020 still represents a massive increase over what was being produced just ten years prior in 2010. That year, just over 265m tonnes of soybeans were grown around the world. A few decades before that, in 1961, production was roughly 10 times smaller again, at 26.88m tonnes.
SOYBEAN PRODUCTION BY COUNTRY
Though soybeans are used in products and as a primary component for feed in animal agriculture all over the world, there are a few countries that produce most of the global crop. The resulting soybeans are then packaged and exported internationally. The countries that produce the most soy are Brazil and the United States. In 2020, Brazil produced more than 121m tonnes of soybeans and the United States produced just over 112m tonnes. Individually, these countries each account for about a third of all soybean production globally. Other countries that also produce a large amount of soybeans include Argentina (48.8m tonnes), China (19.6m tonnes), and Paraguay (11.02m tonnes). Soy is not heavily planted in most of western Europe with Italy producing the most at just over 1m tonnes in 2020.
IS SOY PRODUCTION DRIVING DEFORESTATION?
It’s true that the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon is cattle ranching, but soy also has a detrimental effect. Much of the land that is being converted into soy fields comes from pastures that once supported farmed animals, which is likely pushing farmed animals, such as cattle, onto freshly deforested pastures. Soy fields are also expanding beyond the Amazon in other regions where land is being converted to soy cultivation.
Whether you know it or not, soy likely plays a significant role in your consumption. Everything from our favorite snack foods to the fuel that powers our cars can be impacted by soy. Unfortunately, this massive demand for soy has indirectly resulted in the expansion of deforestation, as pasture is converted to grow soy and cows are moved onto land which was previously covered by trees. Choosing to eat vegan is a great way to limit the impact our diets have on tropical forests and the environment worldwide. Our consumer choices can help to end the expansion of cattle pastures and the need for soy to feed farmed animals.