Sunday, March 12, 2017

The lost innocence of the soy burger

All soy in the world would be needed to replace the proteins that we now get from animals. Therefore, the companies that market vegan soy products should not claim that they are not part of the environmental problems linked to soy cultivation. The global soybean complex is sick regardless if the beans are used for feed, food or fuel. 

I am neither a fan of industrial agriculture nor the large scale soybean production which is taking place in the US, Brazil and Argentina. And I am vehemently opposed to the agriculture model by which large animal operations in Europe import soy beans from Brazil to feed pigs or chicken (to a lesser extent to dairy cows and even less to cattle destined for meat). 

However, when proponents of a vegan diet promote soybeans as the main substitute for meat, and at the same time argue that the environmental issues (deforestation, GM soybeans, pesticides etc.) around soybean production is almost uniquely linked to its function as animal feed, I find that it is appropriate to correct that misconception.  

I have done the math based on the database of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAOStat. That database is not flawless but it is the best there is for global data on crops. 

The total soy supply 2013 was 267 million tons. Of this 11 million tons was kept for seed, which leaves us with 256 million tons. Of this, 17 million was used directly as feed and 11 million tons directly for food. 227 tons are processed in soy mills, where they produce 179 tons of soy meal and 42 million tons of soybean oil and around 2 million tons of soy lecithin, a ubiquitous food additive. Of the 179 tons of soybean meal just 3 tons are used for human consumption. Of the 42 million tons of soybean oil 24 million are used for human consumption and the rest is for industrial use and biodiesel. 

If we sum up and classify the various streams of use for feed, for food and for industrial use it looks like this.

Use of global soy bean harvest 2013, million tons

Industry & biodiesel

Whole beans

Soy meal

Soy lecithin


Soy oil



Percent of total
77 %
16 %
7 %

Source: FAOSTAT, Gunnar Rundgren,

Thus, approximately 16% of the weight of soybeans is used for human consumption. However, if we consider the relative value of the products from the soybean production things look a bit different. Soybean oil has a much higher value than soybean meal; it represents only 18% of the weight but 35% of the value*. If we take that into consideration as well as the price of soy lecithin we find that approximately 25% of the soybeans are used for food production.


What would happen if we all quit eating animal proteins and replaced them with soy products? The global consumption of protein 2013 was 81 gram per capita and day, which represent 212 million tons protein. Of this 84 million tons were of animal origin (the rest thus of vegetable origin, mainly grains, pulses and tubers, read more in “Where does the protein come from?) The protein content of the soy which today is used for feed is around 88 million tons. If we were to replace all animal proteins with soybeans we would need the same quantity of soy beans that are grown today. A vegan diet based on soy as a major protein source would thus require the same acreage of soy beans that are grown today.



Clearly this is not a defense for industrial livestock or for soy bean mono-cropping. It is also not, in itself, an argument against veganism. In many parts of the world there could be grown and consumed other crops for protein, such as lentils, potatoes, peas. People can also eat more grain, which they did in most parts of the world earlier. Of course that also applies to livestock rearing. There are mainly economic (and political) reasons that farmers in Europe import soy beans for feed. It is not lack of land in Europe that cause the imports; Europe has retired 100 million hectare of arable land because it was been more economic to buy feed.

This discussion focus protein, but in my view the supply of fat is a bigger challenge for vegan diets. The share of fat of animal origin (45%) in the global diet is even higher than the share of protein. In addition, most of the vegetable oil production is based on crops (soybeans, rape seed, sunflower, and to a lesser extent palm oil) where the by-products are used as animal feed. If we were to replace all animal fat with vegetable oils, oil palm and soybean production would most likely expand even more than today. Read more:  Where shall the fat come from?

I make this calculation to correct misconceptions about vegan soybean products. In a similar way I have shown that the frequent argument that meat eating is driving deforestation is enormously exaggerated. I make them to refute erroneous arguments against animals, but I don’t make them in defense of industrial animal production.  In my view it is counterproductive to make general statements about the merits of “animals” or “plants”. We need to look at what kinds of production works well in the many different climatic and ecological conditions there are in the world. In my view, the starting point is local, regenerative, production and consumption.

The global soybean complex is sick regardless if the beans are used for feed, food or fuel.  

*In lifecycle assessment it is common practice to use the relative value of the various streams to distribute the environmental impact.

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