By Brian Monteith – 5 minute read
Deforestation is often cited as a significant, if not the major, contributor to environmental damage to our planet. It harms both our flora and fauna by breaking the natural cycles of co-existence between species of land, plants and animals, including the hierarchy of predators.
If deforestation is to be tamed while a rising number of people are to be fed by farmers growing crops, we need to achieve two things. Firstly we need to improve the yields of crops so they provide more nourishment per hectare – thus reducing the need to expand cultivation. Secondly we need to remove subsidies from crops that use a higher amount of hectares or can be seen to cause the most significant levels of damage.
Step forward then, the ubiquitous Soy Bean.
Brazil, the United States, and Argentina together produce about 80 per cent of the world’s Soy, with Brazil being the largest. China imports the most Soy which is widely used as animal feed, so we humans consume much of it indirectly via our meat and dairy. Soy Oil is also increasingly used for subsidised biodiesel production, which has caused significant amounts of deforestation in Brazil.
As of 2022, the leading country in Soy consumption was, unsurprisingly, China, with about 17.8 million metric tons consumed, followed by the United States at about 11.6m metric tons, then Europe; while Soy is a daily staple in southeast Asia.
Younger generations may think Soy food products for humans have always been with us but according to the World Wildlife Fund, since the 1950s, global Soy Bean production has increased 15 times over as its popularity has spread. Yet, when its impact on the environment is taken into account it is highly damaging – due to its mediocre yield per hectare – meaning it requires more land to produce the Soy Bean and its oil than other crops.
Global production of Soy Bean Oil consumes an area of 125 million hectares, or almost 30 per cent of oil crop area worldwide, while supplying 28 per cent of the vegetable oil demand. By comparison Palm Oil provides around 40 per cent of the current global vegetable oil supply despite occupying only around 5.5 per cent of the total global oil crop area (between 21.5 and 23.4 million hectares).
In terms of deforestation, an important piece of research was recently released by Global Forest Watch in June 2023, which said an area of tropical forest the size of Switzerland was lost last year as tree losses surged, with Brazil dominating the destruction through increased Soy and cattle farming. However, the report also noted a sharp reduction in forest loss in Malaysia and Indonesia which showed that reversing the deforestation trend is achievable.
In both countries, the evidence of oil palm corporations taking action is bearing fruit with some 83% of palm oil refining capacity now operating under a ‘No Deforestation, Peat and Exploitation (NDPE)’ commitment.
In Malaysia, primary forest loss remained low in 2022, and has levelled off in recent years, benefitting from positive government action, with a plantation area cap established in 2019 through 2023, and new forestry laws enacted in 2022 to stiffen penalties for illegal logging.
This more recent report should ease the concerns of environmental campaigners and activists, as it suggests the work of southeast Asian governments like Malaysia and Indonesia is having an impact on reversing deforestation. The research also suggests a lot of people are living in the past when it comes to the environmental impact of palm oil. By comparison, with its voracious hunger for land it is no surprise the Soy Bean industry is causing widespread environmental harm:
- Deforestation: As mentioned above, Soy production is a major driver of deforestation, especially in South America where the Amazon is coming under increasing strain. The clearing of forests for Soy production releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributes to the loss of biodiversity.
- Water pollution and scarcity: Soy production requires a lot of water to grow. This can be a particular problem in areas where water is already scarce, such as in the USA and the semi-arid regions of South America. It also relies on the use of pesticides and fertilizers which can pollute waterways leading to eutrophication, which is the growth of algae that can deplete oxygen levels in the water and kill fish and other aquatic life.
- Soil erosion: As soil is often not protected by vegetation during Soy production there is a danger of soil erosion resulting in a loss of topsoil, which is important for supporting plant growth and storing carbon.
- Greenhouse gas emissions: The production of Soymeal and Soy Bean oil, which are used for animal feed and biodiesel, respectively, is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Loss of biodiversity: Soy production can lead to the loss of biodiversity, as it often involves the clearing of forests and other natural habitats. This can have a negative impact on wildlife, as well as on the people who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods.
- Impact on local communities: The expansion of Soy production can have a negative impact on local communities. While its cultivation can create jobs and boost economic growth in some areas, it can lead to the displacement of people and the loss of traditional livelihoods – a particular problem for indigenous peoples who often depend on natural habitats for their survival.
- Use of pesticides and fertilizers: The use of pesticides and fertilizers in Soy production can pollute waterways, harm wildlife, and contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance.
- Waste production: The production of Soy products also generates a lot of waste, such as the hulls and chaff from Soy Beans. This waste can be difficult to dispose of and can pollute the environment.
You might think the environmental damage of Soy Bean farming is bad enough, but possibly more worrying for humans is evidence that Soy consumption could also be making people depressed, nihilistic, and fatalistic. So says a 2020 study by the University of California Riverside, which was published in the widely respected academic journal Endocrinology. It compared mice fed three different diets high in fat: Soy Bean Oil, Soy Bean Oil modified to be low in linoleic acid, and Coconut Oil.
The research suggested Soy Oil contributes to severe neurological diseases which are on the rise globally: Alzheimer’s, autism, anxiety and depression.
An earlier study by the same researchers in 2015 found the effects of Soy Bean Oil induced obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and fatty liver in mice. If the findings on mice can be substantiated as happening in humans – and that remains a big “if” – then the use of Soy Oil in the human food chain will need to be questioned. The researchers have not found any similar health impacts from other Soy products such as tofu or fermented Soy sauce.
In the study, researchers found pronounced effects of the oil on the hypothalamus, where a number of critical processes take place (the hypothalamus regulates body weight via your metabolism, maintains body temperature, is critical for reproduction and physical growth as well as your response to stress). The team determined roughly 100 genes were not functioning correctly in Soy Oil-fed mice. The level of one such gene – the “love” hormone, oxytocin – was found to have fallen in the hypothalamus. The research team believes this discovery has ramifications not just for energy metabolism, but also potentially for proper brain function and diseases such as autism or Parkinson’s.
It is deeply ironic then that a food product like Soy milk, which is so beloved of the more socially and ethically conscious amongst us, comes from a crop which not only contributes to the destruction of the environment, but might also be harming our mental and physical wellbeing.
Brian Monteith is a communications consultant of forty years experience, working initially in the City and then internationally in Africa ,the Caribbean and Asia. A former member of the European and Scottish parliaments, he is Director of Communications at Global Britain.
Photo of Soy Bean cultivation against remaining uncleared rainforest off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean by Xico Putini from Adobe Stock.