Soya: Too Good To Be True?

by Amy Denton, Assistant Editor

In recent years, vegetarianism and veganism have been hailed as the most healthy and sustainable diets. A survey conducted on perceptions around the two diets showed that 73% of people considered them to be ethical, 70% thought being vegan or vegetarian was good for the environment, and over 50% thought it was a healthier diet. As a result, in the UK, we are increasingly reliant on meat alternatives and substitutes, such as soya. Soya is used in many products, animal feed, processed food, meat and dairy substitutes, vegetable oils…the list goes on. It was once even hailed as a superfood. There have, however, been concerns in recent years regarding its impact on the environment, workers, and health.

Therefore, we must question whether these substitutes are in fact the ‘saviours’ we have made them out to be, or whether they have a dark side.

Brazil is the greatest exporter and the second-largest producer of soya in the world. Around 1.2 million hectares of soya were planted in the Amazon rainforest in 2005 which required large parts of the forest to be cleared. But deforestation has been decreasing since the ban on soya produced as a result of deforestation was implemented in 2008. However, a recent study found that up to one-fifth of soy exports to the European Union may be “contaminated” by illegal deforestation. To what extent is a ban effective if there isn’t sufficient oversight? Due to the size of the industry in Brazil, modern-say slavery has also become an issue. The restrictions which have been placed in regard to deforestation should encompass slavery too in order to ensure neither workers nor the environment is being exploited.

Deforestation is not the only environmental impact of soya production; the excessive use of agrochemicals and fertilisers pollutes water sources and the soil. Carbon dioxide emissions are a major criticism of the meat industry, but the soya industry is also a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon is emitted through the conversion of natural land into arable land, the harvesting of soybeans, and the following transport of the soya, and as a result, each kilogram of soybean produced emits approximately 0.188 kg CO2eq kg. To put things into perspective, however, eating tofu once or twice a week per week a year results in 12kg of carbon emissions, compared to the 604kg produced by consuming the same amount of beef!

Regarding the consumption of soy products, there have been concerns over the health implications of consuming them. “Thousands of studies link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, thyroid problems, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, immune system breakdown, even heart disease and cancer,” due to the significant presence of isoflavones in the soyabeans, a phyto-oestrogen which is often confused with human oestrogen. Aside from their isoflavone content (whose effects are dependent on a variety of factors), soy foods are rich in nutrients including B vitamins, fibre, potassium, magnesium, and high-quality protein and can even help reduce cholesterol.

Yes, there are environmental impacts from soya production, but these could be reduced by making changes such as consuming more home-grown soya. That way, there would be significantly lower carbon emissions from transport. In doing this though we would have to be conscious about the downsides: the Brazilian economy would be impacted, and large areas of land in the UK would have to be dedicated to soya production. So, whether or not soya is a super-crop or super-bad is hard to determine. But as with everything, moderation and educating ourselves on sustainable soya and where to get it is key.

Header image by Eric Prouzet via Unsplash

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