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Sustainable soy requires collaboration, public pressure

Just 2 percent of soy is certified sustainable, and mass integration is a way off, but it is achievable with the right farm-to-fork dialogue, government engagement and, of course, time.


In 2017, the world consumed 354.40 million tons of fresh meat and poultry — a figure set to rise to 379.31 million by 2022, according to Technavio Research. As a result, the global animal feed market, one-quarter of which is soy based, is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 4 percent over the next four years.

Of the 400 million tons of soy produced globally each year, 80 percent goes into animal feed and just 2 percent is certified sustainable, half through the Round Table on Sustainable Soy's (RTRS) credit scheme.

Building up sustainable soy production and use beyond this 2 percent mark will take time and collaboration — all of which pivots on consumer engagement.

Consumer sway

Consumer demand will be the critical driver in mainstreaming sustainable soy, but do consumers understand soy's role in food or care about its sustainability?

“From a global perspective, or even country-wide perspective, a very small proportion of consumers know and understand how much of the crops we grow are used as animal feed and how much are consumed by humans,” says Sara Petterson, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International.

Conversation around sustainability of these crops, in particular soy, she explains, is even more confused — limited to genetic modification (GM) and fads around alleged negative health impacts.

“I would argue that consumers' primary concern is with what goes into their bodies, rather than the environmental aspects of food,” Petterson says.

Daniel Nepstad, president and executive director of nonprofit organization Earth Innovation Institute, agreed safety often trumps sustainability.

In China, for example — where per capita meat consumption has exploded 15-fold since 1961, according to FAO statistics — Nepstad says awareness of the links between food and climate change is “quite limited.”

But, he says, with a clear, reliable message that connects extreme weather phenomena to food production “we'll see change,” not only in China but the rest of the world.

Mainstream market conversion

Alexander Döring, secretary general of the European Feed Manufacturers' Federation (FEFAC), says sustainability of any crop is a “complex matrix” difficult to convert into market interest.

“It's a pre-competitive issue; we're investing in a generic chain commitment to move towards more sustainable production methods and supply chain approaches that is, of course, a never-ending journey,” he says.

For the feed industry, Döring notes the priority with sustainable soy is to “foster mainstream market conversion,” rather than become a niche to fuel consumer interest and create incentive for producers.  

However, Nepstad says incentivizing farmers will also need government involvement to translate corporate engagement into “maximum, positive influence.”

In Brazil's Cerrado region – a 500-million-acre savanna biome that has been heavily deforested in the past five years – he says tensions are high among farmers as many have millions of dollars of property at stake that don't align with zero deforestation and native vegetation conservation demands in the Cerrado Manifesto, published last year by a collection of Brazilian organizations, including WWF-Brazil.

“This is a classic example in Brazil of the need to have a collaborative dialogue with government, so that even if a lot of companies are achieving zero deforestation supply chains, you have mechanisms for giving incentives to farmers who are potentially forgoing lucrative farm land,” Nepstad says.

The real opportunity is in harmonizing corporate engagement on sustainable soy with public policies, law enforcement and fiscal incentives, he says.

A jungle of standards

But, how do you do harmonize an industry and engage consumers with a questionable definition?

“The challenge is that there is a big difference in what you define as sustainable soy,” says Jochem Bouwmeester, director in food and agriculture at Rabobank.

Currently, there are an array of standards and programs for sustainable soy, including the International Trade Centre (ITC) Standards Map; the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification scheme; RTRS credits; the U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP); and company-led programs.

In 2015, FEFAC set out to simplify this by publishing a set of voluntary guidelines to define a baseline level for sustainable soy imports, pooling many of the existing standards.

“There are a lot of companies that define responsible soy as soy that comes from the FEFAC guidelines, and if you take that definition responsible soy is doing quite good because you have enormous amounts of FEFAC-guideline certified soy,” Bouwmeester says. “But, if you say, ‘No, I'm a little bit more critical and, for example, want zero deforestation and I don't want pesticides that are legal but bad for people and soil, and I'm an advocate of the best labor rights,’ you end up with a lot less.”

However, Döring says the criteria in FEFAC's guidelines are “very demanding” and have helped bring transparency and categorization to a “jungle” of standards. All major European traders are benchmarked, he says, and the next goal is to engage downstream with retailers.

“The Consumer Goods Forum fully acknowledges that the retail world is still in a research phase,” Döring says. “The notice of Tesco pledging zero deforestation, for example, is a very encouraging sign of an individual retailer coming forward and being more explicit, but many say they are still investigating.”

In Bouwmeester’s opinion, an important aspect of retail engagement will be cost, because large meat producers, fast-moving consumer goods companies and retailers all need to pay “their so-called piece of the cake.”

The future of sustainable soy

Paul Higgins, futurist and founder of consulting firm Emergent Futures, says for now, mainstream sustainable soy remains a distant and complex future objective.

“The forces pushing towards that way are relatively weak and the difficulties in achieving it are relatively strong, so something has to change there,” he says.

Collaboration will be key in mainstreaming sustainable soy, Higgins says, because it reduces perceived risk among industry. However, it will also be important companies only move with enough consumer demand and transparency and credibility of the supply chain, both environmentally, socially and economically.

Consumer demand for sustainable soy will increase with time, as concerns around broader food sustainability strengthen, and luckily it won't clash, but rather reinforce, existing soy standards like GMO-free, Petterson says.

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