Soy and sustainability – are they compatible?

The largest soybean growing areas are located in South America and the USA

For the sake of the environment, more and more people are going vegetarian or vegan and therefore sometimes resort to products containing soy. But are tofu, soy milk and co. sustainable at all?

More and more people want to contribute to climate protection. Many are therefore adapting their eating style: In Germany, about 10% of people eat vegetarian and about 1% vegan. The figures come from a survey conducted by the Allensbacher Markt- und Werbeträgeranalyse in 2019. In comparison, the Robert Koch Institute speaks of 4% vegetarians in Germany in 2016. A few years ago, these numbers were far lower. The food industry has long since recognised this trend and supermarket shelves are filled with meat-free substitutes – often soy-based.

The largest cultivation areas for soy plants worldwide are in Brazil, the USA and Argentina. And the export of the same is booming: the demand for soy has increased drastically in recent years. Huge areas of forest and savannah are falling victim to the growing economic interest and are being cleared for the cultivation of beans. This in turn has a negative impact on the climate.

The main consumers of South American soybeans are China and the EU. According to a Greenpeace report, the reason for this is not the growing hunger of the population for tofu cutlets and veggie burgers, but the increasing demand for meat and dairy products. Almost 90% of imported soy is used as animal feed in the EU, only a comparatively small share goes into direct food or biodiesel production. High consumption of animal food is thus often linked to the negative consequences of increasing soy cultivation for the feed industry. Forest clearing and soy cultivation in monocultures severely restrict the natural biodiversity of the affected areas, denounces the WWF.

Most of the soy plants grown in South America are also genetically modified and treated with pesticides. These plants would therefore not be allowed to be grown here, nor sold as food for humans, according to EU directives.

But where do the soy products in my fridge come from then?

Many manufacturers who sell their soy foods in German or European supermarkets source their soybeans from the European domestic market. A smaller part is often imported from Canada or China. More and more soy plants are also grown in Germany or Austria. Especially in southern Germany, the climatic conditions are good for the protein-rich beans. Compared to soy imports, however, the amount of beans grown in this country is still small: around 30,000 tonnes of soy beans grown in Germany are compared to more than a hundred times the amount of imported plants.

So it would be wrong to blame the neighbour who grills his tofu sausages for the deforestation of the rainforest. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look at the label when buying soy products: the country in which the food was produced and the ecological standards under which it was produced naturally play an important role in sustainability. For example, with regard to the transport route that the product has undergone or the type of cultivation. A sustainable solution for soy eaters can therefore be organically certified soy products from the domestic market or, if possible, from neighbouring countries.