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The hidden soy in your supermarket trolley

Do we know when we are eating soy? We asked the experts to explain how soy is hidden in our diets.

by Helen Burley

Soy is one of the biggest drivers of tropical deforestation – but it’s one of those ingredients we don’t know we’re eating. Sure, it’s listed as an ingredient in some substitute meat products, in margarines and confectionary – but that is nothing compared to the amount of soy we consume as a hidden ingredient.

That’s because some 70-80% of soy is used in animal feed – fed to pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep, and even farmed fish as a rich and cheap source of protein.

So when you bite into a cheese sandwich, you could be inadvertently munching on soy grown in fields where the Chaco dry forest once stood. Or Cerrado savannah, home to jaguars, giant anteaters and armadillos.

We asked experts to explain hidden soy.

What is hidden soy?

We asked the experts to explain why hidden soy in our diets is such a problem

The size of the problem

According to WWF a typical European consumer unwittingly eats 61 kg of soy a year, embedded in meat and animal products such as eggs, milk and cheese.

Images shows a fridge infographic made by WWF showing products containing soy
Soy is hidden in meat and dairy products in our fridge - graphic from WWF,

That’s a lot of soy. And as Hugo Byrnes from Ahold Delhaize explains, when you calculate how much embedded soy is on supermarket shelves that you realise how much difference you could make by ensuring that the soy in your supply chain is not linked to deforestation.

Looming deadlines

But companies have been slow to move on this problem. The Consumer Goods Forum, representing 400 retailers, manufacturers, service providers and other stakeholders, including companies such as Tesco, Walmart and Unilever resolved in 2010 to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.

And in 2014, 57 multi-national companies signed up to the New York Declaration on Forests – including a call to support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, timber and beef products by no later than 2020. 

It is now August 2018 and there is little evidence to suggest that those 2020 deadlines will be met. Last year’s Forest 500 assessment of the most influential companies in deforestation economies found that there was not enough signs of progress  – and that if current trends continued the 2020 goals will be missed.

In fact, just one in five of the companies that were assessed for activities in soy supply chains had commitments to address deforestation – and two thirds of these were limited to specific geographic areas, only covering the Amazon. 

Tackling deforestation or conversion is not just about conserving forests or savannah habitats, protect communities and the wildlife that live in them. Curbing tropical deforestation /conversion is essential if the global community is to meet the level of ambition set in the Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rise below 2˚ Centigrade (and ideally 1.5 ˚C). Simply put, we cannot stabilise our warming climate if we carry on clearing forests at current rates.

Company action

So it is good news that some of the big supermarkets have joined forces through the Soy Buyers Coalition to find ways to work together with partners in the soy-growing areas to stop forests being cleared to make way for soy.

And it is good news that pressure is growing in Brazil through the Cerrado Manifesto, urging companies to become deforestation / conversion free in this important savannah biome.

Forests do not need to be cleared to make way for fields of soy. There is enough existing cropland and pasture to meet demand.

Consumer opportunity

For the unwitting consumers of soy who do not want to be part of the deforestation problem, this is welcome news. Because while it is possible to reduce the soy in your diet by cutting back on animal products, consumers can also ask supermarkets and other retailers to deliver on their commitments, and ensure that their products are deforestation-free.


Photo: Cheese shop, PeterAitch via, creative commons licence

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