Soya: the ‘huge’ challenge of sustainable supplies

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever’s Jan Kees Vis acknowledged the size of the challenge in growing supplies of sustainable soya
Unilever’s Jan Kees Vis acknowledged the size of the challenge in growing supplies of sustainable soya

Related tags Soybean

Food manufacturers and others face “very big” challenges in developing supplies of sustainable soya, according to Jan Kees Vis, Unilever’s global director of sustainable sourcing development.

Speaking before RT7, the seventh annual Round Table on Responsible Soya (RTRS) conference held in London last week, Vis told that in June 2011 the first 85,000t of responsible soya were bought as credits by industrial users. Since then a further 296,123t has been purchased. Global soya production is estimated at about 250Mt.

“The scale of the challenge is very big. Soya is one of the largest agricultural commodities in the world with many thousands of farmers around the world growing the crop,”​ he said.

But with greater education, a much higher proportion of the crop will be produced to RTRS standards, said Vis. The standards specify responsible labour conditions, environmental protection among other factors, he added.

Protecting natural resources

Concern is growing the soya industry’s ability to meet the challenge of feeding the globe’s rapidly rising population while protecting natural resources.

Speaking at the Rio+20 Summit in London last week, Tim Benton, professors of ecology at Leeds University, said: “Sustainable development should not be undermined by unsustainable practices to supply northern food markets​ [with soy and other products].”

David Norman, of WWF said: “Modern techniques used in the production of soy are destroying the soil of the Cerrado region of Brazil.”

At the conference last week, UK and EU supermarkets pledged closer involvement in the RTRS. Mark & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Co-operative Food, have all made commitments that the soy used for own-brand products will come from certified responsible soy sources.

EU supermarkets

EU supermarkets Ahold, from the Netherlands, and the Swiss retailers Coop and Migros made a similar commitment. 

RTRS retail members have agreed to work with soy producers to purchase certified responsible soy. The ingredient is used in many household staples such as margarines, spreads and cooking oils and is the main protein source of livestock feeds.

The Chinese Soybean Industry Association (CSIA) also promised to work with its 750 member organisations to meet RTRS standards.

John Kelley, chief operating officer of the trade body the Agricultural Industries Confederations, highlighted its support sustainability initiatives. He also stressed the need to develop a mass market for sustainable soya and to avoid the development of costly niche markets.

Closing the conference RTRS president Jaap Oskam said big progress had been made towards increasing global demand and supply of responsible soy.

“This conference has seen a growing commitment to transforming the market towards a more responsible one,”​ said Oskam. “We applaud the determination of RTRS members, in particular EU and UK retailers and the CSIA to commit to the process.”

The conference was attended by more than 200 soy industry representatives making it the largest ever held by the RTRS since it was created as the Responsible Soy Forum in 2004.

China will host next year’s RT8 conference.

To read our full report on the Rio+20 Summit, click here​.


Soya facts

●    Soya is a major source of vegetable protein and oil for humans and farm animals. About 80% of soy is used to feed pigs, poultry and cattle, contributing to the production of meat, eggs and dairy products.

●    Soybean oil is used extensively in processed food products such as margarines, dressings and mayonnaise.

●    In 2010, the top five producers – US, Brazil, Argentina, China and India – produced 237Mt of soybean.

●    China imports 60% of total soy exports while Europe imports an estimated 28%.

●    Soy agriculture has been a shown to have impacted high conservation areas including areas of the Amazon and the Cerrado savannah.

●    In June 2011, the first 85,000 tonnes (metric tons) of responsible soy were purchased as credits by industrial users. Since then, 296,123t have been purchased.


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