Soya beans are an ancient and valuable food crop, first cultivated in China thousands of years ago. They are a valuable source of protein for both humans and livestock; their oil is both edible oil and a potential source of biodiesel. They have long been a mainstay of vegetarian and vegan diets in the West.
However, modern soya bean cultivation is causing enormous harm.
Intensive methods developed in USA have led to large areas of soya bean monoculture. This means heavy use of chemicals, and leads to soil degradation, both of which lead to groundwater contamination.
This is bad enough when it happens on established farm land in the USA and the EU, but elsewhere the impacts are even worse.
The demand for soya products has grown rapidly. In tropical areas such as Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Cambodia, enormous areas of pristine habitat – including large tracts of Amazon rainforest – are being destroyed to make way for soya.
Even the gains in agricultural land area may be short lived. Soil degradation could render land unusable in many areas of the Amazon – land which once supported vital ecosystems.
There are also indirect impacts:
- Huge transport and processing infrastructure is needed for such a major agri-industry.
- The demand for lime to make land suitable for growing soya beans means mining, and yet more heavy transport.
- This readily available, cheap protein source is used for animal feed, underpinning more intensive animal farming methods – caged hens and penned pigs – and supporting the West’s appetite for cheap animal products – cheap in terms of money, but not in terms of animal suffering or of the land used to support it.
Alongside the immediate impacts on the natural environment, there are huge human costs.
Large numbers of agricultural workers are displaced when land is taken over for soya production, and have to look for farms or other work elsewhere, as they are not needed for the industrial scale soya bean farms.
Sometimes the land cleared for soya belongs to tribes who rely on it for their existence. One example is the Enawene Nawe Indians’ land in Brazil highlighted by a Survival International campaign.
Things you can do
This is a frustrating issue for the concerned consumer, because as yet there are no easy guides for buying ethically produced soya – no “rainforest safe” labelling systems, for example.
But you can:
- buy organic soya, which should be better at least in terms of soil and water degradation, and overuse of chemicals.
- keep a look out for any products offering soya from certified sources – they should appear sooner or later.