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The secret life of soy

The protein consumers don't think about is driving deforestation and traders aren't doing much to stop it.

Soy in the sun

The deforestation caused by soy is not new, so why have the traders been slow to respond? 

Beef rightly gets attention when we think of the foods destroying South America’s forests, but the second-most important driver of deforestation is less known to people outside of food and agriculture. Perhaps that’s because it’s not something that ends up on our plate every meal — soy. Around three-quarters of global soy production is used to feed pigs, farmed fish, chickens and dairy cows. 

The meat and fish from these animals is more widely consumed in wealthier nations, causing the demand for soy to grow as the world gets richer: Soy production more than doubled over the past two decades, according to a report released this week by the WWF and Global Canopy. Close to 20 million acres — an area the size of Maine — of native vegetation was ploughed up to accommodate that increase. Losses came in the Atlantic Forest and Cerrado savanna in Brazil, the grasslands of the Northern Great Plains in the United States and, more recently, similar ecoregions in Central Asia and Africa.

The soy trade rests in the hands of a relatively small number of companies, so WWF and Global Canopy approached 22 soy traders, which together handle two-thirds of global soy exports, to assess the industry’s commitment to stemming deforestation. The answers reveal a distressing lack of action.

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For starters, only nine of the 22 soy traders responded to WWF. Their responses were graded on multiple points, including goals to eliminate deforestation and other forms of land clearance, monitoring of human rights issues, verification of suppliers’ compliance with policies and the transparency of the companies’ reporting. From a maximum score of 100, companies with 61-80 points were labeled as Intermediate and those with 81-100 points as Advanced. Except no companies earned either label. In fact, only two traders — Cargill and Amaggi — broke the 50-point mark.

"Unfortunately, no one comes out ahead here," said Jason Clay, WWF’s senior vice president of markets. "Even commitments and good intentions only get us so far without urgent action and implementation to back them up. Soy can be produced in ways that are ethical and responsible — it’s time for agribusiness generally and traders specifically to do what it takes to get there."

Only 9 of the 22 soy traders responded to WWF and only 2 broke the 50-point mark.

The deforestation caused by soy is not new, so why have the traders been slow to respond? I think several factors are at work. Global demand for soy is growing fast and traders are competing for new revenue; any individual company that takes a stand risks losing that race. This is evident in the low numbers that every company received when the WWF scored initiatives to collaborate on sustainability.

In addition, there’s less pressure from consumers for reform because soy is not something consumers buy at the grocery store each week. That’s surely part of the reason why only nine of the 22 traders replied. That so many companies felt confident to ignore a request from perhaps the world’s best-known environmental organization illustrates that this trade does not get the attention its impact demands. 

The traders that did reply are falling short, but it’s important that they engaged with the WWF in the first place. One contradictory thing about sustainability ambition is that companies that go public with plans often get criticized for not doing enough, whereas those that quietly commit to nothing avoid the headlines. So kudos to the nine that replied, and particularly the five that earned an Elementary score: Amaggi; Cargill; ADM; Bunge; and COFCO. See the report for the full set of scores.

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