With 75% of the global output used in feed for animals, soy is the fastest expanding crop in the world but its growth has come at great environmental and social cost.
“Considering its role as the world’s major soybean importer, China will need to increase its use of responsible soy if that global industry is to become sustainable,” said Sibyl Anwander,* the new executive director of the ProTerra Foundation, a non-profit group that supports the sourcing of sustainably produced, non-GM crops for feed and food.
China used to be a significant producer and exporter of soy. But its rapid economic development, leading to higher meat consumption, has seen the Asian giant become a net importer of soy since the 1990s.
Consumption of the crop in China doubled in the last decade, from 26.7 million tons (MT) in 2000 to 55MT in 2009, of which 41MT were imported. And the WWF projects that China’s soy imports will increase by 59% by 2022.
Dissenting voices in China
In recent years, pressure from European consumers and environmental organizations has helped to check the spread of soy into natural ecosystems, notably the Amazon. But, to date, Chinese consumers have not demonstrated the same concern over deforestation.
Though, Anwander has noted a subtle change occurring in China. She told this publication that there is increasing demand for certified soy use in food products from the new, urban middle class.
“Some consumers there are beginning to cast a critical eye over the way the feed ingredient is being sourced.
And we predict that the market for sustainable and GM free soy in China will gather pace in the next two to three years – a factor which will really help in terms of getting more critical mass and boosting the volume of responsibly produced soybeans and meal in Brazil and other producing countries,” she said.
ProTerra is holding a conference on sustainable sourcing of soy in the autumn. The event will focus, in part, on ways of getting China more involved in the discussion on how to move towards more responsible soy production.
“There will also be panel debates on how to trigger more collaboration along the supply chain, to make sure that it is not the feed manufacturer or the meat producer only that ends up bearing the cost of the premiums attached to GM free soy, for example.
The conference will look at how we could arrive at a political commitment on sustainable soy sourcing with legislative backing in the consuming countries to ensure greater impetus for all partners in the feed and food chain to back responsible soy," said Anwander.
Speakers will also explore, she said, how criteria pertaining to sustainability and environmental orientation could inform the commercial credit risk management process at lending institutions.
GM free soy debate
There is a urgent need to dispel any misinformation around the availability and cost of GM free soy, said Anwander, given the recent trend in some EU markets to revert to using GM soy in feed for certain livestock sectors.
In that context, she has been actively involved in talks with meat producer groups and GM free lobbyists in Germany following the announcement by that country’s poultry industry in March that it was withdrawing its 14 year-long pledge to only use non-GM soymeal.
“We have made great strides on this issue just by getting everybody along the chain talking – we have been looking at how to ensure a level playing field for all stakeholders. And we expect there will be a renewed commitment to GM free soy in Germany in the coming weeks,” said Anwander.
*Sibyl Anwander was Head of Sustainability and Public Affairs at Coop Switzerland for over 12 years. Coop Switzerland together with WWF initiated the definition of the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy in 2004, which continues to form the basis of the ProTerra Standard.
Deforestation in South America from soy production - graphic courtesy of WWF Soy Report Card 2014