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Do You Know Your Soy Footprint?

Words by Leon Kaye

It was once the manna for health food maniacs and vegetarians, but soy has become the Martin Shkreli of food. Almond milk has knocked off soy milk as the number one non-dairy milk of choice in the U.S.; the food is often maligned as a toxic allergen; and men’s health magazines run warnings of how soy possibly can alter one’s hormonal balance due to estrogen—though, peeking down my shirt, I do not see any such evidence from 20+ years of eating and drinking soy products, way before soy was cool and long after it has been shunned.

After all, soy is high in protein, can serve as a solid meat alternative and some soy in the diet could be beneficial for the heart.

But much of soy’s perception problem stems from what is occurring worldwide in the agriculture sector. South America now produces more soybeans than in North America, where soy has long been a lucrative commodity. Brazil has transformed much of its rustic savannah-like cerrado into massive farms, which include soy as a new cash crop. Currently 85 percent of the world’s soy crop is crushed into soybean oil or meal. Of all the soybeans on earth that are crushed, 98 percent of them are processed into animal feed, due to the world’s growing demand for animal protein. So that organic, fluffy, healthful tofu or fake soy meat you are buying at the store, while benign, is not making a difference on the global soy market. You’re not causing the displacement of local crops or fomenting deforestation. But, a bevy of other consumer products are linked to soy’s disruption to the environment and communities.

To that end, the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an international coalition of retailers and consumer goods manufacturers, says it is taking steps to solve this problem. CGF has developed a framework that it believes can help companies manage the soy consumed within their supply chains. As more companies realize their 2020 promises to reduce or even eliminate deforestation are only a paltry five years away, they need guidance on how to achieve goals. Should this framework catch on and succeed, we may start to hear about a “soy footprint” in the same vein as carbon accounting, water footprint, and timber certification.

Companies criticized for the environmental impact, and seeking to correct those trends, confront a bevy of challenges. As with palm oil, soy is often purchased through several layers of vendors, posing a challenge to traceability. Soy is reported to encroach everywhere from the Amazon to lesser-known but equally fragile ecosystems in the U.S. and Canada. And how much soy is too much soy? A meat company’s feed lot in one region may use a different formulation from one just a few hundred miles away.

The answer, according to CGF, is the “Soy Ladder.” This framework, based on research data, leverages data in a way analogous to how the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act measures risk due to conflict minerals. These guidelines offer an idea of how to measure the prevalence of soy within a company’s supply chain, and whether that company’s consumption puts that company at risk of contributing significantly to deforestation. For example, soy directly purchased and controlled is labeled as “Tier 1.” Soy used in feed for animal, eggs and dairy products comprises the next tier. Derivatives such as lecithin used in chocolate or soy oil in margarine comprise the final tier.

Whether these guidelines, which are still in flux, will be effective remains to be seen. Businesses will still have leeway as to how intensively they wish to report their soy consumption. Many may choose to report only direct purchases of soy or a few layers delineated by this framework—others may just want to report soy purchased from regions where deforestation is a definite risk. The result could be a more educated public—or one further spooked once they have a greater understanding of their total soy consumption.

Image credit: CSIRO

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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