Soy may be a hidden ingredient but companies have started to see the light and commit to sourcing responsibly, says Emma Keller.
High in protein and energy, soy is one of agriculture’s “wonder crops” and is a key part of our global food chain. However, in recent years it has undergone the greatest expansion of any global crop and its popularity threatens tropical forests and other important ecosystems such as savannahs and grasslands. It’s also contributing to wildlife habitat destruction as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that soy production could increase by 140% to 515m tonnes by 2050. Companies that buy considerable volumes of this crop therefore need to change their behaviour – and fast. Destruction of ecosystems and overuse of agrochemicals, which can damage local waterways, have got to stop. In short, responsible soy production must become the norm.
Seventy per cent of soy is used as animal feed and as such is a “hidden ingredient” in many products in restaurants, canteens and supermarkets. Some research we carried out last year showed that the average European consumes about 61kg of soy a year. Most of this is consumed indirectly through animal products: chicken, hamburgers, pork and farmed fish such as salmon, as well as other products including eggs, cheese and milk. It takes 109g of soy to produce 100g of chicken breast, and 35g for one 55g egg.
In our last WWF soy scorecard we saw that retailers were way ahead of companies in other sectors in terms of their commitments and procurement of responsibly produced soy. In fact, almost none of the foodservice companies assessed were performing as well as they should; some didn’t even respond to the questionnaire we sent them despite repeated requests (indeed, in February 2014 Footprint reported it as the “Soy sourcing scandal”).
I frequently hear excuses from these companies. “We don’t have any power in the supply chain” and “There is not enough Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) certified soy available” are two of the most common. But this is simply not the case. Just half of the RTRS soy grown is currently being sold, which leaves plenty of room for companies to request only responsibly sourced
soy from their supply chains. Doing so would have considerable ripple effects down the supply chain and help to reward responsible producers and encourage more to join in.
Another frequent excuse is the cost. Yet given the current prices for soy and the cost of the damage to the environment in the long run, the additional cost for responsible purchasing behaviour is negligible. I don’t want to hear any more excuses, I want to see action being taken.
We’re repeating the scorecard exercise this year and we hope to see considerable progress from a foodservice sector that has been lagging behind for too long. So what are we asking for?
For companies, it is simple – the first step is to become a member of the RTRS and join more than 180 others representing actors all along the supply chain. The next step is to buy RTRS certified raw material and make a long- term commitment to use 100% sustainably sourced raw material.
For consumers, we are not saying don’t eat meat or dairy products – that’s not a helpful message. What we need consumers to do is to moderate meat consumption in line with our Livewell principles. Secondly, we need consumers to buy from retailers and foodservice companies that ensure the animal products they sell have been fed with responsible soy.
This trend is already under way. As well as becoming more health conscious, consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and irresponsible sourcing behaviour just isn’t going to fly. If companies want to be truly sustainable they must take responsibility for their supply chains and commit to sustainably sourced raw materials.
It's time for the foodservice sector to come out of hiding, step up and take responsibility. Come May, when we publish the scorecard, we'll know who has done just that.
Emma Keller is agricultural commodities manager at WWF.