Soy is fundamental to both the human and animal food supply. In fact most soy goes on to feed livestock. As the fastest-growing agricultural material, soy fuels expansion that encroaches on the environment, workers, and surrounding communities. This small bean has a big impact, affecting millions of lives globally.
There are a lot of vegetable oils on the market— sunflower, palm, olive, peanut and soy. Just behind palm oil, soybean oil is the second most consumed with 28% of the edible oil market. China and the U.S are the two biggest producers and consumers of soybean oil, consuming almost 50%.
Most oils labelled as vegetable oil are actually soybean oil. Besides being used as cooking oil, soybean oil is also a component of mayonnaise, chocolate, frozen foods, salad dressings and other sauces, and even potato crisps.
What makes soybean oil so attractive to producers is that it delivers a natural taste and enhances the taste in prepared foods given its compatibility with other oils, fats, and other ingredients.
Another reason soybean oil enjoys such a prominent position in the food industry is its widespread and continual availability. Soybean oil’s adaptability sustains the food industry, making the sustainability of soybean production itself critical to achieving sustainability within the broader food industry.
Worldwide, demand for meat is increasing. Producing more meat means feeding more livestock. Soy is a highly effective protein for animals, thus when demand rises for meat, production of soy also increases. Soy cultivation for feed accounts for 90% of soy production and is the most widely-used protein source for farm animals.
Soybean meal, or oil cakes, are by-products of soy oil extraction and have a wide variety of feed applications within agriculture. It’s used to feed chickens, swine, cattle, horses, and fish, forming a particularly important protein source for cattle and swine. China is the largest producer of soy for animal feed.
Amongst all the other uses for its oil, soybeans are increasingly being grown and used for fuel. Soy is becoming so popular for biofuels that 25% of Argentina’s soy production is used for biofuels.
105 billion litres of biofuels were produced in 2010, accounting for almost 3% of fuels used for transportation. The worldwide biofuel markets is expected to reach almost 100 billion USD in the coming years.
Problems on all scales
Many small-scale soy farmers simply cannot make the transition to sustainable farming practices on their own. This is compounded by the low market demand for sustainably produced soy.
Large-scale farmers, primarily in North and South American, grow more than 80% of the world’s soy and are highly mechanized. While these soy farmers are financially stable, they still have trouble accessing new markets given the lack of clarity within the supply chain as to the benefits of buying certified, sustainable soy.
Poor productivity plagues many small-scale soy farmers, hindering their ability to provide for themselves and their labourers. The main consequence is that they can’t afford to re-invest funds in their own enterprises, including in labour conditions. Farmers often don’t earn living wages, resulting in child and slave labour.
This lack of capital also extends to certification where the benefits of certification are difficult to obtain for small-scale farmers. Certification can assist small-scale farmers in producing sustainable soy and raising incomes, but small-scale farmers often find themselves facing traders and processors reluctant to invest in sustainably produced soy. This deepens the problems soy famers face.
Small-scale farmers’ agriculture practices often result in environmental damage, further preventing the sustainable production of soy. Frequently they are unaware of environmental regulations, and even when they are, they are often unable to comply due to inadequate resources.
On the other hand, when soy becomes a monoculture on large-scale farms, it causes soil erosion and nutrient depletion. To correct these problems, pesticides and fertilizers are applied to protect against pests and replace the otherwise naturally-occurring nutrients found in the soil. Runoff from the soy fields in turn pollutes the water supply and further reduces soil quality.
Large-scale soy farmers also affect a degree of environmental damage. Forests are cleared to make way for soy farms and plantations, reducing biodiversity. This destruction accelerates the rate of global warming through destruction of carbon-absorbing plant life and represents a significant loss in biodiversity.
Irresponsible pesticide use is also widespread on large-scale farms, and as these farms expand, so does their use of pesticides. These seep into the land and water, damaging the soil’s ability to produce as well as putting the health of entire communities in danger.
Across the soy-producing regions, Solidaridad supported local actors to improve supply chains, making them more robust and transparent, and developing awareness about deforestation issues. Over 1.65 million hectares were brought under improved management production systems and 4.9 million tons of responsible soy were produced. In eastern Paraguay and southern Brazil, we worked to support smallholders with environmental, social and economic issues including legal compliance and integrating digital solutions.
Solidaridad has played a crucial role in increasing farmers’ capacity to use good agricultural practices focussed on sustainability. In terms of benefits for producers, there has been strong evidence of productivity increasing both through yield increases per surface unit and by more efficient use of resources.
Increases in economic returns and margins were achieved by adopting good agricultural practices in basic farming activities such as keeping records at the farm level, crop management (e.g. optimal fertilizing moments and sowing dates) and machinery management (e.g. upkeep, calibration and adoption of technology). Solidaridad also supported the first group of farmers in Africa to receive RTRS certification.
Soy underwent an intense shift in 2016 towards new concepts being deployed at the local level, while also phasing out a more traditional approach that had a strong emphasis on producer support. As a result, Solidaridad is using all its knowledge and experience to create new mechanisms for expanding its collaborations with governments, big soy associations and business platforms to increase the scale of impacts on key issues such as deforestation and agrochemicals.
Solidaridad has been active in fostering and strengthening sustainable production of soy in Latin America and its sourcing in Europe through the Soy Fast Track Fund (SFTF) since 2011. The programme aims to help transform the global soy value chain into a sustainable one by using the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) standard as the main reference framework to guide improvements and implement change at the farm level.
The RTRS (Round Table for Responsible Soy) standard is new to Africa. Solidaridad is involved in promoting RTRS methods through two projects in Mozambique and Malawi. As a result farmers in Mozambique have seen a substantial increase in yields, while in Malawi approximately 38,000 farmers have received certified soybean seed.
Through cooperation with Solidaridad, Sinograin, a large Chinese company, brought 25,000 hectares of soy under RTRS certification. Solidaridad China played a crucial role in organising the RT8 in Beijing, bringing Chinese stakeholders together with companies, producers, and civil society organisations from other soy producing and buying countries.
Solidaridad’s began its first soy programme in Africa, in Mozambique.
Together with Solidaridad, companies involved in the Dutch animal production chain signed an agreement to collectively finance a stepwise transition towards 100% RTRS soy in 2015. Friesland Campina, CONO, Ben & Jerry’s, Keurslagers, ARLA, and Interchicken companies are supporting Solidaridad soy programmes.
The first transaction in the Round Table on Renewable Soy (RTRS) certification system took place and commitments to RTRS soy in a number of countries including Belgium, Sweden and UK are published.
Solidaridad entered into a new partnership with dairy company Arla Nederland and Friesland Campina commited itself to responsibly produced soy for a further four years.
The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) standard for responsible soy was approved. This standard is a worldwide agreement on the principles and criteria for responsible soy production.
Farmers & Growers
We approach small-scale producers with the mind-set of adding value to their contributions to the soy supply chain. We do this through giving small-scale producers better access to certification, good agricultural practices, and business management tools– all of which are centred around sustainable land use.
Good agricultural practices are the core of sustainable land use. These practices allow farmers hampered by low productivity to increase yields efficiently, which then transforms incomes and lives. Our soy programme in India is an example where farmers benefit from such training.
In India, 30,000 farmers who have an average farm size of just over 1 hectare, increased yields by more than 54% while reducing the amount of fertilizers used by 23%. This efficient use of land also resulted in a doubling of incomes, equal remuneration for women, and a drastic reduction in child labour.
Alongside training, we use certification through the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) as a tool to support sustainable practices. In South American, where most soy is produced on large farms with high yields, many producers are hesitant to get involved in RTRS because of the low demand for certified soy.
We assist these larger farmers in reducing the negative impacts of soy production, and have worked with IDH Soy Fast Track Fund to bring almost 300,000 hectares under sustainable management, producing 270,000 tonnes of RTRS certified soy.
Through supporting good agricultural practices, we help both small and large-scale famers do their part in transiting the soy industry towards sustainably maximizing the potential of soy.
“Being part of the soy producer support programme has been important to me to better understand the environmental regulations in our region and learn about best agricultural practices. In the case of our farm we now take care of the 500 meter non-GM zone, since we border Iguazu National Park, and we protect the river bank vegetation on our land.”
Mr. Dilo Parerro Soy Producer Brazil
Bringing together a consistent, sustainable supply and an aware and committed demand are important for the transition towards sustainable soy.
We seek to solve soy supply chain problems – including transparency – through engaging in dialogue with all sector influencers to design better supply chains that will increase the global demand for sustainably produced soy through working with initiatives like the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS).
In the Netherlands, as the second largest soy importer in the world, there is a general agreement that all soy imported for animal use should be RTRS certified or its equivalent. Specifically, we work with dairy company Friesland Campina in India and Brazil on sourcing RTRS soy for use in the Netherlands.
"In February 2014, Sinograin North has honourably received the first RTRS certification in China. This will speed up our industry upgrading, promoting the sustainable development of responsible soy, enhancing communication and cooperation with the overseas market, and building a bridge towards the global market."
Wang Feng General Manager Sinograin North
Enterprising women thrive in soy farming
Josina Nikwaniya is a lead farmer in our gender-inclusive programme encouraging smallholders to grow soy. After starting with a tiny demo plot in 2018, the 36-year-old mother of five is planting five hectares this year, mechanising her operation and expanding her business.
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Blog: Four warning signs on the road to systemic change in the soy sector
Solidaridad is participating at the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) annual summit in the Netherlands during the week of 10 June. In the blog below, Solidaridad soy expert Alex Ehrenhaus shares common pitfalls to avoid when developing solutions for soy markets free of deforestation.