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Why we should be Soy Sad about the Soy Industry’s Effect on the Tropics


In a world so infatuated about following the latest trends, it is to no surprise that soy lattes have become the must have item at Sunday brunch. Need a pick me up? Have a soy latte. On a diet? Have a soy latte. Feel like ruining the Amazon? Have a soy latte. Soy products have become a staple for lactose intolerant individuals and are the latest craze for health junkies looking to substitute protein sources. However, as a society we collectively disregard the process of how our food gets to the table. Too caught up in our busy schedules, we fail to think about what goes into our Starbucks drinks.

In reality, soy is one of the most heavily harvested items in South America, with Brazil being the leading exporter. Brazil’s economy is dependent on the soy industry as today Brazil produces one-third of the of the global supply and earns more from soybean exports than from any other commodity (Richards and Hoelle, 2016). The soybean industry, however, is responsible for environmental destruction, such as deforestation, agrochemical runoff, and nutrient depletion (Yale Global Forest Atlas, 2017). Unfortunately, tough economic times for Brazil, as well as other South American countries, can cause booms for soybean farmers. In Brazil, soybean prices depend on the global price for soybeans and the value of the local currency against the US dollar. In turn, Brazil is centered around a giant economical paradox, one in which when the economy suffers, the soybean industry experiences a boom. Not only is soy used in tofu, soy sauce, and meat substitutes, it is also consumed in the form of soybean oil and soybean meal (WWF, 2016). Additionally, soy is heavily relied upon for animal feed, and many humans indirectly consume large quantities of soy through meat and dairy. In fact, 75% of soy production goes towards animal feed, making it a leading contributor to the environmental issues regarding soy (WWF, 2016).

Figure 1. Soy is cultivated in fields throughout the world, with highest production occurring in the tropics. Source:

As agricultural engineering advances, strains of soy that are resistant to warmer climates in the tropics have increased in number. The tropics have become an ideal place to grow soy since there are large expanses of land, despite the fact that they come at a massive environmental cost. Not only does the soy industry propel deforestation, it also displaces small farmers and indigenous people around the globe (WWF, 2016). In light of this, Brazil has been one of the leading South American countries in the environmental movement. The Greenpeace campaign, which will be discussed in detail later, has made excellent progress in reducing deforestation rates (Adario, 2016). Even in the wake of environmental campaigns, demand continues to increase for soy products since its consumers live a life blind of the detrimental effects.

Figure 2. Slash and burn techniques are used to quickly clear areas in Brazil in order to plant more soybeans. Source:

Historically, people have been ignorant of where their food comes from. What started as a great initiative to grow an easy crop and feed many people, quickly turned into an environmental disaster. Most people still think of soy as an alternative dairy product and while it may seem healthier from an individual’s perspective it is more detrimental globally. Kaayla T. Daniel published a book titled The Whole Soy Story in which she exposes the myths surrounding the soy trend (Daniel, 2005). In her novel she discusses specific case studies in which soy has been linked to cancer, puberty delays, hormonal disorders, allergies, and heart disease. Specifically, Daniel suggests that studies which have shown that soy consumption reduces cancer risk are actually controversial and inconsistent. It is also important to acknowledge that most soy consumed in the US is processed and contains non-fermented soy protein (Terrain, 2007). Reading labels and ingredients slightly closer would reveal that soy is present in tons of products, even items that do not seem like they would contain soy. As consumers and inhabitants of this Earth, increased effort must be put towards educating ourselves about products we consistently demand. Here, we describe the soy industry’s effect on Amazonian degradation, with an emphasis on soy production in Brazil.


Soy has historically been referred to as the “miracle crop” and is the world’s largest provider of vegetable protein and oil (NC Soybean Producers Association, 2014). As early as 5000 years ago, Chinese farmers grew soybeans and it was not until a Yankee clipper ship returned to the United States that they were introduced into America. In 1829, a group of farmers grew the first soybeans in the US and soldiers in the Civil War relied upon them heavily to brew coffee when coffee beans were scarce. It was not until 1904 that the famous American chemist, George Washington Carver, discovered that soybeans are a valuable source of protein and oil (NC Soybean Producers Association, 2014). From here, the demand for soybeans accelerated at rapid rates and in the 1970’s, technology allowed soybeans to be modified to grow in tropical climates (Yale Global Forest Atlas, 2017).

From here, the soybean industry has become a staple for many South American countries, the most prominent being Brazil. Just as developments were made to grow soy in the tropics, the Peruvian anchovy fishery crashed and raised the demand for animal feed (Yale Global Forest Atlas, 2017). As demand increased, a soy-cattle pasture-deforestation dynamic was established in which soybean fields replaced cattle pastures and further displaced herd animal farms, thus causing more deforestation. Additional developments, such as BR-163 “soy highway” has set back environmental protection rather than help it. BR-163 is a highway in Brazil going from Tenente Portela to Santarem in Para. The highway has encouraged deforestation by paving the road towards less accessible regions and encouraging soy planting in new zones (Frayssinet, 2017). BR-163 was originally a dream of the Brazilian military to colonize the Amazon. However, modernizing the Amazonian region comes at the cost of the environment and the displacement of indigenous people, raising ethical concerns. When large agricultural producers arrived, they argued that areas they were planting in had reached stable levels of equilibrium. However, how they define “equilibrium” is unclear and after areas have been vastly depleted, large companies simply walk away from the destruction.

Most case studies have focused on the association of soy with the meat industry. A study completed by Nepstad et al., (2006) found that the cattle industry has expanded 11% annually from 1997 to 2004, to include a herd of 33 million in Brazil alone. This expansion is directly linked to the increase in soy production, used primarily as feed for these cattle herds. When the world experienced a shortage of animal feeds rich in proteins, soy presented a simple solution to this issue. Another study looked at the largest players in the soy industry (Steward, 2006). Steward (2006) found that the local and federal government, the federal agricultural agency (EMBRAPA), the federal land settlement and title agency (INCRA), and agribusinesses were the key participants in Brazil’s soy industry. Interestingly, indigenous communities and local farmers played little to no role as well as had no voice in agricultural policies. Historically, the soy industry has been driven by global companies, and looking at current case studies indicates that little has changed.

Figure 3. An estimated 75% of soy production in Brazil goes towards animal feed. Here, Brazilian cattle are shown being herded. Source:

Figure 4. Displacement of indigenous people in Brazil by large and global corporations. Source:

Current Status

The most important agricultural trend in South America over the last 20 years is related to the expansion of soybean production, and soy is the largest agricultural product in South America in terms of land use. Biofuel production from soybeans is an expanding industry, so demand is likely to increase further in the future. Specifically, soybean biodiesel production is projected to contribute to nearly half of the projected indirect deforestation of 121,970 square kilometers by 2020 (Pacheco, 2012). Additionally, it is projected that by 2024 the soybean demand from China will outpace the total production from Brazil, Argentina, and The United States combined. It is unclear how this demand will be met without clearing additional forest land for soybean production (Crist et al., 2017).

Throughout the continent, soybean production makes up 38.8% of total cultivated land at 46.2 million ha. Additionally, it makes up 35% of cultivated land in Brazil, 61.5% in Argentina, and 62.1% in Paraguay. Soy production is also increasing quickly over the last several decades. Harvested areas expanded from 17.7 million ha to 46.2 million ha between 1990 and 2010, and production quadrupled. During this same time period, harvested area almost doubled in Brazil (11.4 million ha to 23.2 million ha), and more than tripled in Argentina (4.9 million ha to 18.1 million ha) (Pacheco, 2012). This growth has been driven by the adoption of new agricultural technology, such as new seed varieties including shorter growth cycle and Roundup Ready varieties of soybean. Additionally, new soil recovery systems have been developed that put nutrients back into the soil more efficiently than in the past (Pacheco, 2012). This allows farmers in the region to work around the poor nutrient content of many tropical soils, at the further expense of forest lands.

Figure 5. Left: Suitability of soybean production in South America; Right: Suitable soybean area overlapped with crop and forest lands (Pachecho, 2012).

Much of the expansion in soybean production occurred mainly in less profitable areas such as cattle pasture, but also at the expense of native forests. The contribution of soy expansion to deforestation is not certain, since much of the production occurs on already deforested pasture. Best estimates indicate that soy expansion contributed roughly 13% to 18% to total deforestation in Brazil from 1990 to 2010 (Pacheco, 2012). Additionally, a large portion of the land with the highest soybean agricultural potential is still under forest cover. This is especially the case in Argentina and Bolivia, and this is likely where major deforestation pressures will occur in the future.  An area particularly impacted by deforestation as a result of soybean expansion is the Cerrado lands and forests in Brazil.

Figure 6. Deforestation is closely related to soy production and cattle herd number.

Specifically, the soy is primarily used as feed for the cattle industry (Nepstad et al., 2006).

The current Minister of Agriculture in Brazil, Blairo Maggi, is also Brazil’s largest soybean producer which represents a clear conflict of interest (Fearnside, 2017). The Brazilian government subsidizes soybean farming through low interest loans for agriculture, exempting taxes on exports, funding research on soybean farming technology, and by building roads to transport agricultural products. A new major development is the planned reopening of the Manaus-Porto Velho highway, which would open up roughly 50% of the remaining Amazon rainforest to logging, ranching, and soy production (Fearnside, 2006).

Currently, Peru does not grow soybeans in commercially significant amounts, and does not produce soybean meal. Peru imported 123 million tons of soybean in 2017 thanks to demand fueled by the poultry industry (Demaree, 2017). Poultry is the largest source of protein produced in Peru, and soybean meal is one of the most important feeds used in this industry. One reason for this lack of domestic production is a moratorium on biotechnology in agriculture. In 2012, Peru established a 10 year biotechnology moratorium on planting and reproducing biotech crops and animals. Since the highest yielding soybean varieties grown today are genetically engineered, it is more cost effective to import these cheaper soybeans than it is to grow lower yield, non-GMO soybeans (Demaree, 2017). The other reason for lack of domestic soy production is simply that there is not much suitable land for growing soybeans in Peru, especially compared to other South American countries (Pacheco, 2012).

Local and Global Initiatives

One of the main international efforts to bring about more sustainable soybean production is the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS). This group is made up of three sectors; producers, trade and finance, and civil society organizations, with each having equal voting rights in any decision making process. The RTRS encourages sustainable soybean production in order to reduce negative social and environmental impacts while maintaining an economically viable industry. This is done through the development, implementation, and verification of a global standard of soybean production, and holding the stakeholders to this commitment. The RTRS also bans the conversion of lands with high ecological value to agricultural land. Currently, the RTRS has over 200 members from several countries around the world, with most being located in Brazil (WWF, 2017).

Another international effort to promote sustainable soy is through the Soy Moratorium, which began in 2006 as pressures from NGOs, largely Greenpeace, led to commitment from soybean processors and exporters in Brazil to refuse to purchase soybeans produced on deforested land (Greenpeace, 2017). This has proved to be quite successful, as soybeans were found to be responsible for less than 1 percent of total amazon deforestation from 2006-2014. In contrast, in the two years prior to the agreement, nearly 30% of soy expansion occurred through deforestation of the Amazon. Additionally, soy production expanded by 1.3 million hectares during the moratorium period, showing that this agreement was successful in preventing soy expansion into the rainforest while not hindering overall economic development. However, this may be because soy has been expanding into other systems, not the amazon. In Brazil’s Cerrado biome, where the moratorium does not apply, the rate of soy expansion into native vegetation remained between 11% and 23% per year from 2007 to 2013. The Cerrado is characterized by woodlands and savannas, and has less protection than the amazon under current environmental laws (Gibbs, 2015). This biome is also a biodiversity hotspot, with more than 3,000 endemic plant and animal species. Considering this development, the holistic impact of the moratorium is not completely certain, as it may have simply shifted many of the negative practices elsewhere in Brazil. This agreement should be extended into the Cerrado as well to prevent loss of biodiversity and native ecosystems.

Since only a small portion of soy is consumed by humans, awareness must be raised regarding the main uses of soy products, especially as feed for livestock. While other detrimental tropical products such as palm oil have product labels indicating sustainability, there is no such label for soy. Considering that most soy consumption is indirect, usually in the form of animal products, consumers do not know when they are consuming soy with the current system. A “safe soy” labeling system, showing consumers whether sustainable soy products were used in the chain of production, would help consumers make informed decisions about which products to purchase. A variation of this idea involves the creation of an app, which scans a product’s barcode and gives a brief rundown of the chain of production, similar to the tracking history for a package. This could also include other issues facing tropical forests, such as palm oil, chocolate, coffee, and other forest products. While this would require significant effort and coordination, the outcome would be more informed decision making by consumers and the ability to avoid products that are detrimental to the tropics. This would also likely incentivize producers to operate in more sustainable ways, as some consumers would switch to more sustainable products.

Literature Referenced

Adario, P. (2016). 10 years ago, the amazon was being bulldozed for soy. Then everything Changed. Greenpeace International. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Crist, E; Mora, C; Engelman, R. (2017) The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science. (356): 260-264.

Daniel, K. (2005). The whole soy story: the dark side of america’s favorite health food. Newtrends Publishing.

Demaree, H. (2017). Peru’s soybean meal imports fueled by poultry industry. Retrieved 24 April 2017.

Fearnside, P. (2006). BR-319: Brazil’s Manaus-Porto Velho Highway and the Potential Impact of Linking the Arc of Deforestation to Central Amazonia. Environmental Management, 38(5), 705-716. Retrieved May 1, 2017.

Fearnside, P. (2017). A Resurgence of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Retrieved 24 April 2017.

Frayssinet, F. (2016). Soy boom revives amazon highway. Inter Press Service. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Greenpeace. (2017). The Amazon soya moratorium. Retrieved May 01, 2017

Gibbs, H. K. (2015). Brazil’s Soy Moratorium. Science, 347(6220), 377-378.

Nepstad, D; Stickler, CM; Almeida, OT. (2006) Globalization of the amazon soy and beef industries: opportunities for conservation. Conservation Biology. 20(6): 1595-1603 

North Carolina Soybean  Producers Association (2014). Accessed 24 April 2017.

Pacheco, P. (2012). Soybean and oil palm expansion in South America: a review of main trends and implications. Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Richards, P; Hoelle, J. (2016). Brazil’s thriving soy industry threatens its forests and global climate targets. The Conversation. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Soy Agriculture. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. (2017) Accessed 24

April 2017.

Steward, C. (2007). From colonization to ‘environmental soy’: A case study of environmental and socio-economic valuation in the Amazon soy frontier. Agriculture and Human Values. 24 (1): 107-122.

Terrain, MV. (2007). The dark side of soy. Utne. Accessed 24 April 2017. 2014. History of soybeans.

WWF. (2017). Soy roundtable. Retrieved May 01, 2017. Accessed 24 April. 

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