US soy production has grown more than 15 times in 50 years, making it one of the fastest-growing crops in the world. As the demand for soy grows, large tracts of natural land are turned into soy plantations. This leads to large-scale deforestation and other terrible effects, such as soil erosion, increasing carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
This post will explain the effects soy products have on the environment. We’ll also talk about some things you can do to lessen these effects on the environment.
- They lead to deforestation.
Soy is an annual crop, meaning each plant only produces a single yield per lifecycle and doesn’t respond much to fertilizers. Therefore, to increase the yield and meet the growing demand, more soy must be planted, which requires more land. In tropical countries where soy is grown a lot, vast areas of virgin land must be cleared to cultivate soybeans.
Most of the deforestation that soy causes have been in South America, mainly in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. In 2018, more than 57 million hectares of land in South America were used to grow soy. And since production can only go up, deforestation is likely to continue in these areas, which is terrible news for plants and animals around them.
- They threaten biodiversity.
Habitats are lost, and important ecosystems are destroyed when large tracts of land are converted into agricultural land. The conversion of natural land into agricultural land leads to a large-scale loss of biodiversity. A great example of this is the tropical savanna area of the Cerrado Basin in Brazil. As the most biodiverse savannah in the world, the Cerrado is home to a broad range of wildlife, hosting around 5% of all living species on earth.
Since the climate and land are ideal for farming, there isn’t much protection for conservation, and there aren’t many consequences for clearing forestland. As a result, nearly half of Cerrado’s native vegetation has been lost to intensive agribusiness, of which soy is a significant part.
From 2006 to 2017, satellite pictures showed that 170,000 hectares of Cerrado forest were cut down to grow soybeans. According to Brazil’s Forest Code, only 20% of privately-owned land in the Cerrado must be reserved for conservation, compared to 80% in the Amazon rainforests. These figures mean the other 80% can be legally cut down for soy farming. Recent research predicted that if agribusiness in the Cerrado kept going at its current rate, this incredible landscape and most of its species would be gone by 2050.
- They produce more carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
The global production and trade of soy affect biodiversity and the global climate as it releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Converting natural land into farming land, as we’ve seen in the Cerrado and other places, is among the significant causes of carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
Since forests absorb and hold enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, cutting them down to grow crops like soy releases harmful amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Other sources of emissions include using machines to harvest and process soy and food miles from export. However, if done right, US soy production can have far more positive effects.
- They cause soil erosion.
Agriculture is one of the leading causes of soil loss worldwide, and soy production is no different. Over time, activities like intensive irrigation and plowing and a lack of wind protection from trees disturb and use up the nutrient-rich topsoil. Soy farming causes Brazil to lose about 55 million tonnes of topsoil annually. The effects of this loss are terrifying – as more fertile soil is lost, agricultural land productivity reduces, threatening crop yields and long-term food security.
- They deplete water resources.
Since soy needs plenty of water to grow (it takes almost 300L of water to make 1L of soy milk), using water unsustainably depletes natural underground water sources. Also, farming machinery, such as tractors, compact the ground over time, making it harder to reabsorb water into these sources. Therefore, the area’s available water for people, flora, and fauna reduces gradually.
Unfortunately, industrial soy farming also impacts water quality. Soy farming pollutes nearby water sources, such as estuaries and rivers, using agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals pose significant health risks to local communities and nearby wildlife.
How Consumers Can Minimize the Environmental Impacts of Soybean Products
Decreasing consumption of animal products. The easiest way to reduce damage to the environment that soy causes are to consume less meat and dairy products. For example, a WWF report indicated that around 650 million hectares would be saved if everyone cut their meat consumption to what nutritionists recommend.
Purchasing locally. Most soy products we consume come from other countries, increasing the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. We recommend you purchase soy products from local stores to decrease air miles. In addition, it’s vital to assess how your local soy is grown.
Buying organic. When you can’t purchase your soy products locally, go for organic soy products. Under EU regulations, organic crop farmers cannot grow their crops using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore, this causes less damage to the environment during production.
Soybeans have been essential to Asian cooking and culture for thousands of years. However, in the last 100 years, soybean products have become household food in the West. Since then, it has become one of the world’s most vital and profitable crops, but most of it is grown in the US and South America.
Large-scale soy farming leads to several environmental impacts, including soil erosion, deforestation, emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, threatened biodiversity, and whatnot. Use this guide to learn how consumers can minimize the environmental impact of soybean products.