The problem with soy | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 14.10.2016

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The problem with soy

Soy has gotten a bad name in recent years after it emerged vast swathes of rainforest were being cleared for its production. But what is all that soy being used for?

Ten years ago, environmental group Greenpeace drew global attention to the destruction of vast swaths of the Amazon forest in Brazil from a seemingly unlikely source - soybean plantations. The alternative to meat and staple of environmentally-friendly vegans around the world was perhaps not so green after all.

From 2001 to 2006, soybean plantations expanded by 1 million hectares in the Brazilian Amazon, leading to record deforestation rates. The ensuing outcry pushed Brazil to introduce a moratorium, which has drastically cut forest clearance for soybean production over the past 10 years, studies say.  

But environmental groups such as WWFsay soy plantations are still causing deforestation in Brazil and other Latin American countries. This is threatening wildlife, the global climate, water reserves, soil quality and people, and is causing social unrest. In Paraguay, for instance, small-scale farmersare struggling to uphold their traditional lifestyles in the face of increasing soy monocultures and deforestation. Some 3.5 million hectares of soy fields now stretch across the country. 

Watch video 03:39

In the shadow of soy plantations

But where is all this soy going? Soybean oil is used as a table oil and, increasingly, as a biofuel. Aside from that, it is a major part of our diet. Humans directly consume only a relatively small proportion of the protein-packed foodstuff in the form of products such as tofu and soy milk. But we do eat a lot of it indirectly. Some 75 percent of soybeans are used for poultry, pork and other animal feed.


WWF broke down how much soy is required to produce meat and dairy consumed by the average person in Europe. For instance, a European consumes 18.6 kilograms of chicken and 214 eggs in one year, which altogether takes 27.8 kilograms of soy to produce. 

The European Union is a major importer of soybean, but China is by far the largest consumer. China's soybean imports will hit a record 86 million tons for the year 2016-17, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The increase will stem from a higher demand for animal feed thanks to growth in swine and poultry production. 

As the global population increases - and with it the demand for meat and dairy produce -, so too will global soy production. In 2012, the world produced around 270 million tons of soy. The WWF predicts this will nearly double to 514 million tons by 2050. And that means more land for growing soy - and possibly more deforestation. 

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