Responsible soy – 10 years on

In 2010, the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS) agreed on its responsible soy standard. At that time, a huge step after years of intense debate between soy stakeholders. Where are we after 10 years? Solidaridad concludes that the RTRS standard has played a limited role in the transition towards a sustainable soy — It is certainly not a silver bullet. A range of other steps are needed, starting with bottom up programmes, designed with farmers.

The Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS) was founded in 2006 as an initiative of soy producers, civil society organizations and industry. It took four years of intense discussions, consultations and field testing, to finalize its central piece of work: the RTRS standard, as the basis for a certification scheme. This standard includes principles, criteria and indicators on issues including community relations, pesticide use and (no) deforestation, to mention a few. 

Many involved reasoned that if the main actors in the soy value chain would embrace the RTRS Principles, only farmers producing responsible soy would find a market and get loans and ‘RTRS soy’ would become the norm. 

Where are we 10 years on?

After 10 years of working with the RTRS standard, it is still very far from being the norm. In 2019, the amount of soy that was certified under the RTRS standard was around 3.99m tonnes, just over 1% of all soy. A total of 3.95m tonnes of certified RTRS was bought in 2019, the vast majority through credits, independent from the actual physical flow. In the 10 years of RTRS (2010 to 2019) the global soy production increased from 265m tonnes to as much as 337m tonnes, with only a very small part certified.

What the standard has achieved is the creation of a frontrunner group of soybean producers in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and in Canada that can and do act as an example for other soybean producers. Through credit sales these frontrunner producers have been successfully connected to buying companies in the soy value chain. Some companies like Mars, LIDL and ARLA now make long term agreements for certificate purchase with farmers in hotspots like Maranhao in Brazil, so as to work on longer term connections that can also be used in storytelling. So far, it is mainly (NW) European buyers that buy RTRS certified soy. So far RTRS has not really  managed to involve buyers in South and East Europe, and even less in involving Chinese and other markets.   

What is the impact?

In the end, the main question to be answered is: did RTRS manage to or does it have the potential to make sustainability mainstream in the soy sector? The answer can only be that mainstreaming is still far away and the impact is still likely to be limited. 

Sure, there will be changes and impact on the farms that have certified. There is ample anecdotal evidence of improved relations between certified farms and communities around them. Certified farms are likely to comply with the existing national laws on pesticide storage and use. They will have registration of pesticide use with a plan to reduce it. These farms will not deforest, the main issue for most buyers. But reality is likely to be that these farms were already among the top performers. The actual impact of certification on deforestation is likely to be limited at best. The premium of RTRS soy (around 0.5% of the soy price) is so limited that it will never compensate for opportunity costs of conversion in most places. This means that the certified farms are likely to be the ones that did not have active plans to do so anyhow. 

The farmers certifying are mainly really large ones. In 2015 around 95%, or 2m tonnes, of all RTRS soy was from South America. This amount of South American RTRS soy was produced by 139 soy farmers with an average area of 4,800 ha. Outside South America, RTRS has hardly managed to get traction and impact. 

What we do see more recently is, partly as a spin-off of RTRS,  an increasing proliferation of initiatives and standards committing to support sustainability in the soy sector. Reacting on the FEFAC guidelines, there are a growing myriad of (company) certification schemes, often with sustainability requirements well below RTRS. 

For buyers, one issue is that with buying RTRS certificates they still cannot claim to have zero deforestation supply chains, as the vast majority of certified RTRS is through credits and certainly not traceable, segregated chains. There are attempts to ensure that credits are closer to the supply of companies, through mass balance, area mass balance or regional credits. But basically the way it works will be the same. And although there is a lot of progress in traceability and transparency, it is not likely that buyers will be able to say their soy supply is deforestation free, unless they are willing to pay a much higher premium to compensate for logistical costs. Traceability and physical sustainability chains in soy will always be challenging and costly. A large part of the costs will be needed for logistics, rather than for actually promoting sustainability.

What is needed? 

The RTRS standard and RTRS certification did connect buyers that want to invest in responsible soy production with soy farmers that actually do produce in a responsible way. This created a pool of farmers showing how production can be responsible. This has definitely been valuable. 

However, in addition to this, a lot more is needed to ‘mainstream sustainability in the soy sector’, and certainly to drastically reduce conversion of land with high nature value. There is no silver bullet that can provide instant solutions. In our experience some of the necessary elements include: 

  • Farmers and their ambitions and perceptions should be the starting point of interventions. Governments and supply chain actors can influence farmers’ behavior, but only up until a certain level. In the end, it is farmers that need to ‘live the changes’.
  • There is an important role for government policy and for supply chain / market signals, but an important part of the solution needs to be regionally customized and developed in consultation with regional actors, first of all with farmers. That would also require involvement of actors in other supply chains, livestock or maize.
  • In regions where government policy does allow farmers to convert forests or areas with high nature value, it will be key to develop business models with zero-deforestation farming (could be expansion on degraded pastures, intensification, agroforestry types of farming and many others) that are economically more attractive than expanding in forest areas. 
  • Many soy farmers inside and outside South America often lack access to technical assistance and production technologies, leading to production that is far from optimal and not very resilient. For small farmers (and others that lack access to knowledge services) this should often be combined with providing services, technical assistance and financial services.  

So, indeed, no silver bullets. Many actions from different stakeholders are needed, from farmers to consumers, and good alignment and cooperation to ensure that activities support and reinforce each other.   

>Read more about our work in soy.