Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Part 1 – Global Soyabean Production


This report is taken from the following main sources by James O’Donovan (VSM) May, 2018:

  1. WWF, The Growth of Soy, Impacts and Solutions, 2014. 
  2. WWF, Website Accessed Jan, 2018. 
  3. Chatham House, Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains, 2016. 
  4. Mighty Earth and Rainforest Foundation Norway (ME&RFN) The Ultimate Mystery Meat, Exposing the Secrets Behind Burger King and Global Meat Production, 2017. 
  5. ME&RFN Mystery Meat 2, The Industry behind the Quiet Destruction of the American Heartland, 2017. 
  6. ME&RFN The Avoidable Crisis, The European Meat Industry’s Environmental Catastrophe, 2018. 
  7. FERN Soybean Briefing Paper 2017. 


In 2016 global production of soybeans was 324 million tonnes on 1.2 million Km2, a 5% increase from 2014.  The US used to be the dominant producer of soy, but low land and labour costs, supportive government policy and a lack of environmental enforcement with, in many cases, illegal deforestation has fuelled explosive growth in South America, initially in Brazil, but now also in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay.  

More than half of Argentina’s agricultural area is now used for the cultivation of soy, and 80 per cent of Paraguay’s – a relatively new producer.  Soybeans are the dominant oilseed on world markets, with a projected share of 60% of global oilseed production in 2014/15.   

Mass soybean harvesting at a farm in Campo Verde, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo: Alf Ribeiro.

The United States, Brazil and Argentina are the world’s largest soybean producers and represent more than 80% of global soybean production.  

In 2014, the average worldwide yield for soybean crops was 2.6 tonnes/ha.  In 2016 1.2 million km2 of forest, savannah and grassland have been converted to soybean monocultures.  

Deforestation in the Cerrado WWF

Genetically Modified (GM) Soy 

In 1994 the first GM soybean was introduced to the U.S. market, by Monsanto.  It is illegal to grow GM soy in the EU or China but it is imported for animal feed.  Russia has a GMO ban in place.  Soy is genetically modified to tolerate the Roundup herbicide.  GM Soy can be sprayed several times with this herbicide during the growing season and all other plants but the soy will be killed.  Recently more and more weeds have become resistant to this herbicide and new GM soy variations have now been developed with resistance to multiple even more toxic herbicides (like dicamba). 

By 2009, 77% of global soy production was GM – an increase of 4.9 per cent on 2008.  In 2014, 90.7 million hectares of GM soy were planted worldwide, 82% of the total soy cultivation area.   

Proportion of GM soy grown in selected countries.

“Although GM soy was introduced largely with the aim of achieving higher yields, the evidence suggests that, if anything, yields have tended to be lower.” (Gurian-Sherman, D., 2009) 

What countries use the most soybeans? 

China is by far the largest importer of soybeans (61% of total imports, or 55 million tons on 210,000 km2) and the country is expected to increase its soy imports by 5% annually, increasing 50% by 2020/21 to reach 110 million metric tons of soybean imports.  

By 2016 European imports increased to 46.8 million tons of soy and soybean products, 27.8 million tons of which came from Latin America and the remainder from the US.  Assuming the average global yield of 2.6 tonnes/ha this amounts to 180,000 km2 of land appropriated from countries where people often suffer from malnourishment. 

Why are soybeans so popular? 

Soy is a cheap source of protein for animal feed.  ‘Soybeans produce at least two times more protein per unit area than any other major vegetable or grain crop, except for hemp (which can produce up to 33 g/m2 (290 lb/acre)).  Soybeans produce 5 to 10 times more protein per unit area than land set aside for grazing animals to make milk, and up to 15 times more protein per unit area than land set aside for meat production.  Soy is one of the few plants that provides a complete protein as it contains all eight amino acids essential for human health.’  

It is used in combination with maize, barley or other what are called ‘coarse grains’ (in fact they are the healthiest grains).  In 2016 from the 1,308 million tons of coarse grain produced, a billion tons were used for feed (the remainder used primarily for the production of ethanol biofuel).  According to the International Feed Industry Federation an additional “around 300 million tonnes of feed is produced directly by on farm mixing” but is not included in the FAO figures, giving a total of 1.3 billion tons of feed-grain being fed to animals in 2016.  242 million tons of soy cake were used for animal feed in 2016 (approx. 160 million tons of other oil seed meal was also used for animal feeds).

How are soybeans used? 

Most people consume far more soy than they think.  While many people imagine soy is eaten mainly by vegans, meat eaters consume 94% of soy indirectly as meat and as an ingredients in food and other products.  Globally 76% of soybeans are converted to soybean meal (68%) and soy oil (8%).  Soybean meal is use primarily for poultry and pork but also for beef, dairy and factory-farmed fish combined with maize, barley or other grains.  93% of soy in Europe is used for animal feed.  9% are used as ingredients, as a cooking oil, and emulsifier in processed foods.  9% are processed into industrial products (primarily biodiesel).  Only six percent of soybeans are used directly as human food, and this is mostly in Asia where a different non GM strain is grown by millions of small farmers in India and China.   

© wwf

Soy ingredients have become staples in the food manufacturing industry.  Lecithin is widely used as an emulsifier.  Since the 1970s, partially hydrogenated soybean oil has been a mainstay in the production of snacks, baked goods, salad dressings and other foods, although the trans fatty acids it contains has led to its rapid fall from grace in recent years.  Soy protein ingredients can be found in baked foods, processed meats and other products.  Soy oil is consumed as edible oil although the proportion used for biodiesel production is growing rapidly, especially in the U.S.  The rest of the soy is used for industrial products such as fatty acids, soaps and biodiesel.  

How fast is Soybean production growing? 

Between 1961 and 2009, global soy production expanded nearly 10-fold, and it has doubled since the mid-1990s, precisely tracking increasing meat consumption.  Soy production will continue to increase as long as meat consumption continues to rise.  


China alone has accounted for over 90 per cent of the total growth in imports recorded since 2005, and in 2014 the country accounted for almost 40 per cent of total world imports.  In 2017 the Chinese Government revised its national food guidelines recommending its citizens to reduce meat consumption by 50%.  That hopefully will reduce the use of soy.  Indonesia, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand all currently feature among the top 10 soybean meal importers, with a boom driven by increasing demand for meal as a feedstock for the aquaculture industry, as well as increased demand for animal protein by consumers.  Soy has only limited potential for yield increases, owing in part to its nature as a biological nitrogen fixer, which renders it largely unresponsive to fertilizers.  Between 1995 and 2011 aggregate soybean yields increased by just 1 per cent in the major producing countries.  So any increase in consumption will be met by expanding the land area being used to grow soy.  The WWF estimate an increase to 200 million ha by 2050 (assuming global average productivity). 


Whats else is driving the growth of Soybean production? 

We saw above how the increase in soy production is driven by increasing meat consumption.  From 1961-2013 poultry and pork production increased by 60 million tonnes.  Around 75 per cent of soy worldwide, and 93 per cent of soy in Europe, is used for animal feed.  The below diagram shows the explosive growth in poultry and pork consumption from 1961-2013. 

The below graph shows the growth in per capita meat consumption, showing the huge growth in poultry and also to a lesser extent pork and eggs.  Between 1967 and 2007 pork production rose by 294 per cent, egg production by 353 per cent and poultry by 711 per cent (FAO, 2011).  A global average of 10 kg of pork and poultry per person per year to 30 kg per person even as the population increased from 4 to 7.5 billion while per capita beef consumption remained relatively static.  A production increase of 185 million tonnes of meat.  

This growth in meat products is viable solely because it is propped up by massive direct subsidies for producers combined with low animal feed import tariffs.  OECD subsidies in 2012 are shown below.  If farmers producing animal products had no subsidies then most would have to shut down.   

Friends of the Earth Europe

The EU intensive livestock sector relies on soy, most of it GM soy imported from South America and the US, to produce meat and dairy products.  Imports of soy to the EU appropriates an area of 180,000 Km2.  This is more than Germany’s entire agricultural area.  The main European importers of soy are countries with large industrial-scale pig and chicken production.  The average European consumes over 150kg of soy per year (assuming 93% of the imports used as feed), indirectly in the form of animal products, primarily chicken and pork, but also beef and farmed fish as well as eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt.   

Other reasons for the increase in the global production of soy include:

  • Increased consumption of poultry and pork in developed countries. 
  • Human population growth and urban migration (people in cities eat more meat). 
  • Soybean exports surged after the World Trade Organization was formed in 1995, removing many restrictions on international trade.  
  • Internationally, tariffs on animal feed imports are lower than for many other agricultural products, so soy meal is a relatively cheap import.   
  • Increased pork consumption drives imports to China.
  • The EU banned feeding animals with animal based products (slaughterhouse waste).  The abandonment of local protein and legume production by European farmers also increased imports. 
  • Fishmeal is now primarily being fed to aquaculture and is no longer as available for animal feed as it is much more expensive than soy. 
  • Globally as wild fish capture continues to decline, aquaculture in Asia is becoming a significant soy consumer. 
  • Marketing of animal products. 
  • Liquid credit and speculative investments in the meat industry. 
  • Illegal land occupations. 
  • Government policy and a lack of environmental regulation in producer countries. 





Latest Articles


Related Articles

The Story of Soy

Part 1 – Global Soyabean Production This section details how much soy is produced and...

Part 3 – The Human Impact of Soy Production

This report is taken from the following main sources by James O'Donovan (VSM) May,...

Part 2 – Biodiversity and Habitat Loss from Soybean Production

This report is taken from the following main sources by James O’Donovan (VSM) May,...