Growing up north of Chicago with family in Southern Illinois, as a child, meant many hours spent being driven down state and back upstate gazing at miles and miles of soybean fields for as far as the eye could see. I really have very little memory of anything but those miles and miles of soybean fields. There really wasn’t much else to look at on those long drives. Though despite these memories, those fields weren’t always there. They’re actually a relatively new crop that’s been planted for less than the past one-hundred years.
Until the 1920’s, the United States imported most of its soybean oil from Northeast China, the region of China once known as Manchuria. Much of the meal from these crushed beans was sent to Japan where it was used as a nitrogen based fertilizer before other ammonia based fertilizers were more readily available. The meal in the United States didn’t widely become used as feed for chickens until nearly the 1950’s thirty years after the soybean crushing industry became more established in this country. The soybean oil was the primary product and used initially for soaps, lubricants and other industrial uses rather than for food. Only after further refining techniques were developed in the late 1920’s and 1930’s did soybean oil become a major component of food in products like margarine and cooking oils as replacements for butter and lard. Over the next fifty or so years, these plant oils largely replaced animals fat in United States citizens’ diets (1).
Today these previously rarely consumed fats from soybeans and other plant oils, per FAOSTAT‘s as I’ve previously reported in a prior blog post, are over 700 calories of an average United States citizen’s per day diet. Nearly 600 of those calories are from soybean oil largely used in processed foods.
While a very small percentage of soybeans are grown and used specifically for foods like edamame and tofu, the vast majority of soybeans are grown for the crushing industry. Thus soybeans have two primary products: oil and meal. Initially the meal was considered a by-product of the oil business, but today instead the meal is considered a co-product. The oil has a number of human uses including as a processed food ingredient, cooking oil and bio-diesel. It’s also still used in soaps, and industrial products. Most of the meal is used for animal feed mainly for chickens and pigs in confined animal operations [CAFO], but also for pet dogs and cats as well as dairy cows. A small amount of the meal is further refined into flour and or isolates for human consumption. These are the isolates used in many plant-based products since they are a concentrated source of amino acids (protein). These isolates and flour are derived from soybeans grown for crushing…not soybeans grown specifically for food. The vast majority (95%+) are also GMO crops bred to be herbicide resistant to herbicides like Round-up (active ingredient glyphosate).
There are also some secondary products including the soybean husks and soybean lecithin. The husks are the outer pod shells of the beans. These husks are made into pellets, and like the meal, are used for feed. The husks can also be blended into the meal. They are less than five percent of the yield of soybean crops. Unlike soybean meal, these pellets are also used as cattle feed. According to cover crop and feed specialist Dale Strickler, these pellets are especially useful for receiving rations in cattle feed. When young cattle arrive at a feedlot, they have to be transitioned from the grasses they were eating to concentrates (starches) that put on faster gains. The pellets are cellulose not starches, so the pellets don’t acidify the rumen like starches do. As for the lecithin, after the oil has been solvent (hexane) extracted from the flakes, the oil is degummed with water to remove the cell membranes called phospholipids. These phospholipids are the lecithin. (2). Lecithin is commonly used in a wide array of processed foods primarily as an emulsifier to bind different ingredients together.
So pretty much all GMO monocropped soybean fields, whether in the United States or Brazil, are grown for a variety of uses. The same bushel of beans produces oil, lecithin, meal, isolates, flour and husk pellets. However, the oil is the most valuable part of the soybean. This is why solvent extraction processes were developed. Older forms of extraction, like mechanical extraction, didn’t extract as much oil as solvent extraction methods. Here’s a brief video explaining the different extraction methods.
One bushel of beans weight approximately sixty-one (61) pounds. One (and the same) bushel produces 44 pounds of meal, 11 pounds of oil and 3 pounds of husks. Prices of soybean meal and oil fluctuate in the US since they’re priced by the commodity exchanges like many other agricultural products. On the exchanges, the prices for meal and oil are in different units so they can’t be compare directly. The price for meal is per ton of meal. The price for oil is per pound of oil. So the price for meal has to be converted from tons to pounds. The recent price per pound of meal is 14.5 cents per pound. The recent price for a pound of oil is 30 cents or twice the per pound value of the meal. So per bushel per recent US prices, meal yields $6.40 per bushel (44 times 14.5 cents) and oil yields $3.30 per bushel (11 times 30 cents). So the break down of value for a bushel of soybeans is 65% for meal and 35% for oil. Or, in other words, though only 20% of the yield, the oil is still 35% percent of the value of the crop and thus a very valuable portion of the crop. So contrary to the popular narrative, soybeans are not grown only for livestock feed.
Also contrary to the popular narrative, very little of the soybean meal is fed to beef cattle. As noted in this article, Soybeans May Be Viable Cattle Feed Option , from Drover’s a main beef industry magazine, soybean meal isn’t fed to beef cattle in United States feedlots because a lot of other feed ration options are a lot cheaper. As this article notes, “soybeans haven’t been used much in cattle rations because they have been more expensive than other feeds such as distillers grains, alfalfa hay and wheat midds.” Cattle are also finished on concentrates (carbs) not proteins, so the article also notes that when soybean meal is used, it’s used in small amounts in feed rations as a protein supplement.
Per 2017 data FAOSTAT crop data, Brazil wasn’t too far behind the United States in annual soybean production. More recent 2018 data indicates that Brazil now exceeds the United States in soybean production. Most of Brazil’s soy is exported to China…around 70%. China, where most soy was grown 120 years ago, is now by far the largest importer of soy in the world. China also raises over half of the world’s pigs. Its citizens meat of choice is pork (3). So a large portion, if not most, of the soybean meal from the soybeans exported to China goes to feeding pigs in confined animal operations. Within Brazil, this recent Mongabay article, Brazilian hunger for meat fattened on soy is deforesting the Cerrado: report , breakdowns how soybean meal is used to feed domestic livestock in Brazil as follows:
“…In 2017, Brazil produces 16.3 million tons of soy meal for its domestic market, and more than 90 percent of that became animal feed. A further breakdown shows that half was used as chicken feed, a quarter for pig feed, and 12 percent to feed beef and dairy cattle…”
Thus with beef, that’s 12% of the 30% of soybean meal that isn’t exported or just 3.6% of soybean meal goes to feeding all cattle in Brazil including dairy cows. According to the FAO, Brazil currently has around 212 million head of cattle (4). Of that number, approximately 90 million are in the Amazon. Global beef cattle inventory is approximately 1.5 billion head of cattle (5). So Brazil’s beef cattle in the Amazon is approximately six percent of global inventory.
What many people fail to realize is that Brazil also has a huge chicken industry. Brazil is the world’s largest chicken exporter (6). Since there’s more of an immediate and obvious plus conspicuous connection with cattle grazing deforested land, especially due to the 2006 soy moratorium, Brazil’s beef gets all the attention and criticism. But when it comes to deforestation, Brazil’s chicken production for both domestic consumption and exports is just as or more of a driver. Why? Soybean farming is more profitable than cattle ranching. So the end game- where possible- is soybean production in both the Cerrado and Amazon. As discussed in my prior blog post, Q & A with Mongabay’s Sue Branford, the 2006 soy moratorium had unintended consequences. Land that was previously cleared and was being used for ranching was converted into soy, and then more land was cleared of its timber for ranching. The soy moratorium also pushed new soy production into the Cerrado. Ranchers, who sold land to soybean producers in the Cerrado, then took those profits from those sales and went further north in the Amazon to ranch on land purchased from land grabbers. After two years, when the moratorium no longer applies since land is no longer considered newly cleared land, ranchers again sell their land to soybean farmers. The ranchers then again buy more land deeper and deeper in the Amazon. The cycle then repeats itself.
More and more land is needed since deforested land isn’t very fertile and is thus quickly depleted of its fertility within a few years even with the extensive use of super phosphate and other agro-chemicals. So in this slash and burn world more and more land is grabbed, cleared of timber, sold to cattle ranchers, flipped to soy after two years, and then finally abandoned. There’s a lot of abandoned completely denuded land. Land deeper in the Amazon is and has been made more accessible via infrastructure built for dam building and now also used to get commodities like timber and soy to ports for export. As previously noted in the Q &A with Sue Branford, most deforestation happens within 30 miles of roadways.
Brazil also uses a large portion of its soybean oil for bio-diesel. The same Mongabay article cited above notes that “70 percent of Brazilian bio-diesel is produced from soybean oil.” Brazil has biofuel and ethanol mandates. So a lot of Brazil’s sugarcane crops are grown for ethanol (7). Like with soy, grazing land outside the Amazon converted to farm sugarcane has displaced and continues to displace cattle ranchers, who take their cattle further into the Amazon.
Another often overlooked product, where a lot of the soybean meal ends up, is pet food either directly as an ingredient or fed through chickens. For example, take a look at Nestle’s Purina Dog and Cat food products. The ingredient lists for many of the different Purina branded products include chicken, chicken or poultry by-product meal, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and soybean meal. Considering that there are 170 million plus pet dogs and cats in just the United States alone, that’s potentially a lot of pet food. Nestle, like other companies that use a lot of soy products (e.g. Unilever), is a global company that buys its soy related products through other global companies producing and distributing soybeans like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland [ADM], Bunge, and the Louis Dreyfus Company.
These soybean producers all operate in Brazil, so Rover’s dog chow and Misty’s cat chow are likely more responsible for the Amazon being deforested than any burger currently consumed in the United States. Why? There’s currently a moratorium on importing fresh and frozen beef into the United States from Brazil. A prior moratorium was in place up until 2016. Most beef consumed in the United States was raised by domestic producers. This is also why environmentalists and domestic beef cattle producers should be working together to make sure that stricter country of origin labeling [COOL] is re-implemented, so consumers can tell where their beef was born and raised. COOL labeling should be extended to other commodities like soybeans and chicken as well.
Though now many of these global growers, and the global corporations using meal, husks and oils are investing in plant based products and cellular agricultural technologies. Even some of the industrial meat companies like JBS and Tyson are re-positioning themselves as “protein” companies so that there are expanded human uses for soybean crops. Many have already brought or are bringing soybean based products to grocery store aisles for human consumption. Other new start-ups like Impossible Burger source GMO soybeans for their soy isolates and lecithin. So rather than disrupting the food system, these companies, with what’s essentially glorified dog food, are reinforcing the status quo. Why? Because this glorified human dog chow is entirely dependent upon industrial monocrop agricultural that not only benefits the large growers and users but also the large agro-chemical, fertilizer and biotech/seed companies that all benefit from preserving the status quo. These large corporate vested interests also happen to fund a lot of research at institutions like Harvard and Oxford. This has been especially true with the companies supporting EAT Forum with many scientists from those two universities (8).
Cellular agricultural won’t be much different because that too will require the amino acids from soybean producers in the circulating cell media to grow the stem cells in energy intensive bioreactors. This all was described in greater detail in my prior blog post, Lab Meat: More hype than substance? So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a company like Cargill is a large investor in the cell Ag industry.
So simply using industrial agriculturally different for different end uses isn’t a meaningful solution. Doing this is more akin to rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Industrial agricultural, that’s reliant on chemical inputs for fertility, pest and weed control, isn’t sustainable. Such industrial agricultural practices are super destructive especially when utilized in inappropriate ecosystems like the Amazon where oxalic (acidic) soils need to be limed to raise the pH and a lot of mined phosphate has to be applied to provide soil fertility. Plus in these tropical regions massive amounts of insecticides are used to protect soy crops. These crops are also often desiccated pre-harvest with diquat or paraquat based products like Gramoxone SL 2.0 by Syngenta.
In regards to environmental impact, any food or fiber crop can be grown, caught or raised in ways that range from very bad to very good. This is especially true with soybeans and beef, but is equally true of rice, wheat, corn, palm trees, almonds, hemp, cotton, tomatoes, and pretty much all crops. Too often we get caught up in debates over “good” or “bad” foods when we really should instead be focusing on methods of food production. With food production, we need to focus on best practices as well as context. Context accounts for appropriateness of where crops are grown. So with soy, the how and where it’s grown matters. There are better ways to grow soy without a lot of chemical inputs for fertility, pest and weed control. Some of these ways (as shown in the below video) include intercropping with other plants, using cover crops, and more complex crop rotations as well as integrating grazers. All of these methods reduce chemical inputs and help rebuild soil health.
More complex crop rotations means also growing other crops besides soy (and corn) so there’s less reliance on soy (and corn). In the United States, this will necessitate a rethinking of how crop insurance is done. More emphasis needs to be placed on rebuilding long term soil health rather than micromanaging what and when crops can be planted and grown. Long term soil health provides flood and drought resilience by sequestering soil carbon. Cutting back on processed foods and soybean oil also will lessen demand for soy crops. Despite what some people still claim, soybean and other ultra-processed seed oils are not heart healthy. People who often make these claims are often getting research funding and contributions from companies like Unilever.
Transitioning to insect feeds for monogastric livestock (pigs and chickens including both laying hens and broilers) as well as for farmed fish is yet another way to reduce the demand for the soybean meal. Insects like black soldier flies require a lot less land and can be raised on food waste. More people, especially in western societies, prefer getting their proteins from animal proteins rather than directly from insects. As the below video shows, this would greatly lessen the demand for soybean meal (and fish meal) in China, the country that by far imports the most soybeans in the world.
Using food waste directly for monogastric livestock also is a way to cut down on soy crop production. Cutting chicken consumption, in general, would also help. This would allow further re-adoption of other de-centralized forms of chicken production on pasture or in perennial cropping systems where forage (including insects) are a larger portion of the diet. The below video depicts such an alternative systems that provides meat, eggs and nut crops. This system can be easily modified for many places across the world.
As noted above, with beef consumption, re-implementing country of origin labeling [COOL] would be a good place to start. This labeling, as also previously noted, should be extended to soy, chicken and other products including aluminum and gold. If we all have a better sense of where and how our food and other consumer goods are produced, we all can make more effort to avoid products that are raised, mined, grown or caught in inappropriate places in deleterious ways. Context matters. Obviously beef production in the Amazon is awful, but beef production in grassland ecosystems, and integrated cropping systems sequesters carbon plus reduces the need for chemical inputs for fertility and pest/weed control. Better grazing management also drastically increasing the carrying capacity of the land, so often more than three times the amount of cattle can be put on the same land. Integrated systems also allow for ruminants and crops to be produced on the same land. So contrary to widely circulated misinformation, a lot more land isn’t needed to have 100% grass fed and finished cattle. The below video shows how properly managed cattle increased the carrying capacity of seriously degraded land nearly ten times in the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico.
As just noted, an inappropriate place for beef (and soy) obviously are rain forest ecosystems. Though in these ecosystems, the drivers driving deforestation are a bit more complex than what’s often portrayed in the media. Unfortunately, even if all beef and soy production stopped tomorrow, deforestation wouldn’t magically end. Why? Mining and timber extraction wouldn’t stop. Dam building, aluminum smelting and road way construction wouldn’t stop. Plus different crops like sugarcane, cotton and palm fruit trees would be planted instead of soy. Brazil wouldn’t be much different than Malaysia or Indochina, where the main crop is palm fruit for palm oil and paper pulp. The real drivers causing deforestation are short sighted capitalism, corruption, lack of enforcement of existing laws, reduction of enforcement agencies and thus the complete impunity of people who break the law.
For many in Brazil, there’s a wild west mentality that believes that the forest is their land to exploit. This mentality isn’t unlike what occurred in the United States in the 1800’s and is still occurring where minerals and hydrocarbons are extracted across the globe. Many agriculturists and politicians in Brazil believe that climate change is just a hoax to keep them from developing their land. While Bolsonaro has amplified this mentality. it’s not new. Peak rates of deforestation occurred in socialist administrations under Lulu. Lulu believed development of the Amazon was a way to resolve inequality in Brazil. So, the real question is how do you derive value from the Amazon and Cerrado without destroying the Amazon and Cerrado? Agroforestry is one solution for both reclaiming abandoned land and utilizing existing forest. Palm fruit trees can be intercropped with acai and fruit trees. So there are a lot of nuts, seeds and fruits that can be repeatedly harvested from intact and restored forests that are actually more profitable than a one time haul of timber or from subsequent short term land uses of beef and soy. However, due to the current perverse economics, grabbed land is worth 100 to 200 more times without trees than with trees…that is until the land is no longer fertile and abandoned. Then even more forest is slashed and burned. So to begin to heal the land, more abandoned land has to reclaimed and replanted in agroforestry systems like the one shown in the video below.
So there’s no single simple solution to dealing with deforestation or dealing with industrial agriculture. Plus there are a lot of entrenched politically powerful well funded interests that want to preserve and reinforce the status quo. But we have to change our mechanistic mindsets and move away from industrial forms of food production to regenerative systems of food production including and especially for chicken, beef and soy. Our planetary health, and maybe even our species’s survival, depends on this transition.
- Shurtleff, W and Aoyagi, A. 2007. History of Soybean Crushing: Soy Oil and Soybean Meal.
- Kresser, Chris. 2019 Harmful or Harmless: Soy Lecithin
- Shahbandeh, M. 2019. Number of pigs worldwide 2018, by country.
- World Cattle Inventory: Ranking Of 209 Countries (FAO)
- Chicken Exports by Country
- Asher, C. 2019. Brazil sugarcane growth can meet biofuel need and not drive deforestation: study
- Shiva, V 2019. Fake Food, Fake Meat: Big Food’s Desperate Attempt to Further the Industrialisation of Food