Soy is in the sustainable spotlight but industry is slow on the uptake

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Where the Brazilian Amazon rain forest ends and a soy plantation begins.... Photo: Istock / Phototreat
Where the Brazilian Amazon rain forest ends and a soy plantation begins.... Photo: Istock / Phototreat

Related tags Soy Responsible soy Agriculture Brazil

Food companies are acting far too slowly to clean up their soy procurement practices while new standards for responsible soy may not go far enough, say campaigners.

Palm oil may get all the attention but behind all the welcome deforestation-free commitments made last week there is another problem commodity.

Soy, mainly used in feed for animals in the meat and dairy supply chains as well as in the food supply, is the fastest expanding crop in the world but questions remain if food firms are moving too slowly to ensure their supply chains are sustainable.

“More urgent action is required as soy production continues to place considerable pressure on some of our most valuable forest ecosystems but also other natural habitats such as grasslands and savannahs like the Cerrado,”​ Dr Emma Keller, agricultural commodities manager at WWF, told FoodNavigator.

Keller welcomed the 'leadership' shown by the likes of Unilever and Marks & Spencer, who both recently made 'important' commitments to source palm oil, beef and soy from regions that have ambitious climate and forestry initiatives in place.

However, these are the exception rather than the rule. “Companies continue to make important deforestation-free commitments yet progress on soy is slow and many companies are lagging behind,”​ she said.

Investigation underway

WWF has already started work on its 2016 ‘soy scorecard’, which will scrutinise the procurement policies of the world’s major food companies in relation to the essential commodity.

The results of the 2014 iteration were “disappointing”,​ with the majority of the 88 EU firms assessed behind both in terms of commitments and actions. Almost one in three (31%) had made full or partial commitments to use only responsible soy, but only a handful were on track to hit a 100% target by the end of this year.

Amongst the FMCG companies, Arla, FrieslandCampina and Unilever were singled out for special praise. The latter has even put in place policies for its ‘indirect use’ of soy, such as that used in animal feed by its livestock suppliers.

However, only five of the 27 manufacturers assessed were members of the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS). Just half of the companies had made commitments on responsible soy for use in animal products, “no deforestation” supply chains, or the soy moratorium.

“This indicates a lack of awareness of the issues surrounding soy by companies that could be seen to be uninterested in offering their consumers responsibly-produced meat and dairy products,”​ the authors concluded.

Whilst Dr Keller couldn’t offer any initial insight – research is already underway but the scorecard isn’t due to be published until the first part of 2016 – she did suggest that more urgent action is required.

In June, RTRS’s Europe outreach manager admitted that food companies often found it difficult to trace soy but that hasn’t stopped some trying. However, they have “shied away” from talking about it with consumers, Lieven Callewaert said​.

New standard

Currently just a tiny fraction of global soy is RTRS certified. Next year a new standard could be published. This is the first review since the original was agreed in 2010. Dr Keller said RTRS 2.0 will be stronger overall.

“Considerable progress has been made to limit deforestation associated with RTRS soy production and [there will be] a significant new requirement for producers to conserve or restore a minimum percentage area of their farm,”​ she explained.

“Moreover, the revision of the RTRS standard positions it as one of the few standards pushing for zero deforestation, thus supporting companies who have begun making ambitious deforestation-free commitments.”

However, some compromises have been made, she admitted. “[…] there will be further work required to improve the standard and a need for companies to increase their commitments to sustainable soy and zero-deforestation supply chains.”

Next year the Soy Moratorium in Brazil will come to an end. This has played a crucial role in combatting deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by requiring companies not to buy, trade or finance soy that has been grown on land that was deforested after July 2008.

In June, the moratorium will be replaced by Brazil’s new Forest Code, which sets the legal requirement for landowners in the Brazilian Amazon to maintain 80% of forests as legal reserves. But unless the new legislation is properly enforced and there are big penalties for non-compliance, much of the conservation success delivered by the moratorium could be reversed, Dr Keller said.

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