Who uses soya and why?
Nearly all soya is used by the farming sector as a livestock feed for chickens, pigs and other animals. The biggest users are chicken producers; soya makes up around a quarter of the diet of birds. It has been the cheapest source of protein poultry available to farmers since the ban on meat and bonemeal after BSE. Soya remains key to producing fast-growing, low-priced chickens.
Can’t they use alternatives to soya?
Alternatives such as lentils or legumes are more expensive and less available to farmers. Some poultry farmers have been experimenting with adding black soldier fly larvae to the diets of their birds, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimating that insects could replace between 25 and 100% of soymeal for chickens. However, at present insects are seen as a supplement, rather than a replacement, for soya.
“[Soya is] our achilles heel. It’s the best pound for pound source of protein so it’s hard to convince farmers to move away from it,” chicken farmer Charles Mears told the Guardian last month.
Soya is a smaller part of the diet of other farmed animals and appears to be easier to replace. For example, dairy farmers supplying M&S recently eliminated their use of soya, replacing it with rapeseed oil and sugar beet.
Is it possible to buy soya that isn’t linked to deforestation?
The vast majority of soya is grown in Argentina, Brazil and the US, which between them account for 80% of global production. Two of those countries – Argentina and Brazil – have serious risks of deforestation in soya production, and also provide most of the soya used by UK farmers. There is a small but growing supply of soya produced in Europe, but it is not yet competitive with producers in the Americas. It is currently more profitable for European farmers to grow alternative crops to soya. The main sources of organic soya are China, India, the US and Russia.
What are retailers doing to eliminate links to deforestation?
Retailers are linked through their supply chains to deforestation because they buy meat and dairy products from UK farmers who use soya. In response to pressure, they have come out with a variety of policies that attempt to limit or eliminate links with deforestation.
Most of them do this by committing to ensuring that their suppliers only use “responsibly-sourced” soya, relying on a range of certification schemes to deliver on this. There is no internationally-agreed definition of responsibly- or sustainably-sourced soya. Instead it is left to individual private certification schemes such as the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, which states that it guarantees zero deforestation and zero conversion in its certified soya production.
But such schemes have different tiers of certification. The most basic tier involves buying offsets for soya in their supply chain. The money goes to support farmers producing soya responsibly, but the soya in the supply chain is not necessarily responsibly-sourced. Aldi and McDonald’s are among companies that say they use credits.
The next tier up works on the basis of what is known as “area mass balance”. Certified soya is mixed up with non-certified soya, but the amount of certified soya is tracked. So while the actual soya you buy may not be certified, you create a market for certified ‘responsibly sourced’ soya by buying it through this tier. Tesco has said all of its soya will be covered by this tier by the end of 2020.
The highest tier is buying only segregated soya, which means the soya comes from a certified source and is kept separate from other non-certified soya throughout its journey along the supply chain to farmers. Sainsbury’s has said it will work with its suppliers of fresh chicken, pork, eggs and aquaculture to only source area mass balance or segregated soya by 2023. Waitrose has set the same target for its suppliers by the end of 2020.
What is the government doing to tackle the use of soya and deforestation?
The UK government has agreed to introduce new rules requiring companies to prove they have checked for risks of illegal deforestation in their supply chains. Companies would also be banned from sourcing commodities, including soya, that have not been produced in line with the laws of countries where they originate. A consultation on the proposals concluded last month.
Details about the due diligence that firms will have to undertake to ensure products are deforestation-free have not yet been announced. It is also unclear if compliance with local laws would be enough to guarantee that soya has no links with deforestation. In Brazil, for example, president Jair Bolsonaro has disputed data on deforestation and called for further development of the Amazon region.
“The only way supermarkets and fast food companies will actually achieve deforestation-free supply chains is by reducing the amount of meat they sell, not by replacing soya with other feeds, or by paying certification schemes,” said Anna Jones, head of forests at Greenpeace. “Feeding plant proteins to animals to produce meat is hugely inefficient and uses far more land across the world than we have to spare.”