Soy consists of three main products: bean (or seed), oil and soybean meal. Soybean meal is the by-product of soybean oil extraction. Crushing one tonne of soybeans yields about 180 kg of oil and 800 kg of meal (Peyronnet et al., 2014). The oil is used in human food while the cakes are used as animal feed.

Crédits : ©Meredith Petrick - Licence Unsplash Enlarge image la figure 2

Image représentant une plantation de soja.

Soy is mainly used as an intermediate product in food or industrial production chains. Soybeans that are used in the production of animal products (soybeans given to chickens, oxen, dairy cows and pigs throughout their lives) are called “hidden soybeans”. The latter must also be taken into account in assessing the weight of imports in global deforestation.

Globally, 77% of soya is produced for animal feed, 19.2% for direct human consumption and 3.8% for industry (biodiesel, lubricants, etc.).

Soybean meal is almost exclusively used as a protein in feed rations for livestock (poultry, pigs, oxen, farmed fish). It is the main source of protein used for animal feed in the world. In animal feed, the largest consumer of soybeans is chicken (37% of world production), followed by pork (20.2%), aquaculture products (5.6%), dairy products (1.4%) and beef (0.5%).

Soybean oil, one of the most consumed in the world, is destined to 80% for food uses, the rest being used mainly to produce biofuels (biodiesel).

Only 6% of the world’s soybean seed production would be directly processed for food use in the form of soy milk, soy desserts, tofu or as an emulsifier (soy lecithin) in industrial food preparations (chocolates, ready meals, etc.) (Fraanje and Garnett, 2020).

The global soybean market

Global soybean production doubled between 2000 and 2019 from 26.4 to 55.1 million hectares. The main production basins are concentrated in three countries: the United States represents on average 33% of world soybean production over the period 2012-2021, followed by Brazil (32%) and Argentina (16%). About 90% of export volumes come from Brazil, the United States, Argentina and Paraguay. Soybean production in Brazil has grown very strongly since the late 1980s, from less than 20 to more than 120 million tonnes in 30 years.

The challenges of the soya sector in France

France imports an average of 3,616,000 tonnes of soybeans per year over the 2012-2021 period (54 kg per capita) and exports 251,000 tonnes. 82% of this soybean is imported as soybean meal. The latter are the residues from the extraction of soybean oil.

French imports of soybeans were largely from the United States until the 1980s, but this situation has evolved to the benefit of South American countries, particularly Brazil, which is by far France’s leading supplier. With 2,354,000 tonnes of soybeans exported to France per year on average over the 2012-2021 period, Brazil represents 65% of French imports. Argentina exports 338,000 tonnes of soybeans to France, which represents 9% of France’s total imports.

Under the 2021 French Finance Law (Article 15), the tax benefit for the incorporation of soybean oil into biofuels has been abolished since 1 January 2022.

A dashboard is available on this platform for the analysis of deforestation risks related to French soybean imports.

The land footprint of soybeans

Over the period 2012-2021, soybean imports from France mobilize an average of 1,285,000 hectares per year, or 193 m2 per capita.

The role of soybeans in deforestation

The expansion of soybean cultivation is largely at the expense of forests and natural vegetation. Soybeans contribute both to direct conversion but also to indirect conversion through the displacement of cattle production and by raising the demand for new pastures for livestock to forests and natural vegetation. 8.2 million hectares were deforested for soybeans between 2000 and 2015, 97% of which in South America. In this region, most direct conversions for soybeans (defined as planting soybeans within three years of forest clearing) occur in the Brazilian Cerrado and Brazilian Amazon. Cerrado alone accounts for about half of the continent’s direct conversion to soybeans. Because if since 2006 deforestation has decreased in the Amazon under public pressure, the neighboring landscape of the Cerrado is dominated by private sector interests. It has already been cut in half and largely converted to soybean cultivation.

The most notable environmental impacts of soybean expansion in South America are fragmentation of the remaining primary vegetation cover, compaction and erosion and increased risks of soil salinization, river eutrophication, water and soil pollution from fertilizer and pesticide residues, loss of underground biomass and increased greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of flora and fauna.

The social impacts are manifested by land grabbing, the multiplication of conflicts between soy producers and traditional communities, the reduction of rural populations’ access to natural resources (water, food, etc.) necessary to maintain their living conditions, the migration of rural populations to cities, the reduction of rural jobs, the increase of poverty and the increase of inequalities.

Find out more (report in French):

Sustainable soy

Amazon soy moratorium

The initiative to establish a zero deforestation soy industry is the Amazon soy moratorium signed in 2006 and implemented from 2008 (Kastens et al., 2017; Gibbs et al., 2015; Rudorff et al., 2011). The moratorium on soy is a commitment by major players in the soybean industry not to market soybeans produced in areas that come from deforestation in the Amazon biome. The engagement was institutionalized initially between these actors and environmental NGOs and then endorsed by the Brazilian government.

The certification standards

The main existing standards for soybeans are:

  • RTRS Standard – Roundtable on Responsible Soybeans;
  • ProTerra Standard;
  • ISCC Standard - International Sustainability and Carbon Certification.

Their correspondence to the SNDI criteria (Objective 13) was studied by the dedicated working group of the AFD Forest Scientific and Technical Committee and resulted in a study report.

Find out more (reports in French):

The "Soy Manifesto"

Initiated in November 2020, and supported by the Ministry of Ecological Transition, the Manifesto "For a mobilization of French actors to fight against imported deforestation related to soy" aims to mobilize all market players in order to ensure a sustainable sector of soybeans imported into France for animal feed. This initiative is detailed in section "Engagement of private actors".

The challenges of protein autonomy

French soybean production is more than ten times lower than its imports, averaging 321,000 tonnes per year over the 2012-2021 period.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food published in December 2020 a national strategy on plant proteins. The objective of this strategy is to reduce France’s dependence on foreign imports, particularly soybeans, and thus reduce the risk of deforestation abroad. This strategy has been allocated €100 million to start its implementation. Its objective is to double the agricultural area allocated to plant proteins to 2 million hectares by 2030.

It results in:

  • Support for research and innovation actions to develop economically, environmentally and nutritionally relevant solutions that will support the momentum of the recovery plan in the medium term;
  • Support for the necessary material investments in both field and livestock producers;
  • Support for the structuring of plant protein sectors and downstream investments;
  • Help promote pulses to consumers.

of world soybean production is for human consumption

of France’s land footprint is due to soybean imports

per capita soybeans are imported into France each year

Sources :

  • Global Forest Watch
  • USDA 2020
  • SDES : Importations françaises de matières premières visées par la Stratégie nationale de lutte contre la déforestation importée entre 2012-2021 - Vers une empreinte terre de la France (Décembre 2023)
  • Our World in Data