The Joy of Soy: Why Soy Beans May Be the Ultimate Crop for our Times

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The 21st century presents the world, and specifically the world of agriculture with some serious sustainability quandaries. As the population booms, animal agriculture has had to grow exponentially to meet global demand. As meat consumption becomes increasingly widespread and intensive, the growth of American fast food trends in Asian markets such as China, Thailand, Japan and Cambodia where meat consumption has traditionally been sparse and infrequent has led to a sustainability crisis.

While the meat industry feeds and employs millions, its effects on the environment and world health demonstrate a clearly unsustainable model. Animal agriculture presently contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation industry, and the methane produced by livestock is potentially 86 times more destructive than carbon dioxide.

The trick then, is how to create a sustainable model for feeding the population while ensuring the livelihoods of farmers and their rights under agricultural law. The key lies in the humble soybean. Soybeans’ unparallelled plant protein and amino acid content makes them not only a great animal feed for cattle, pork, poultry, dairy and fish farmers but as an increasingly diverse plant based meat substitute.

Soy and sustainability

Changing climate and genetic modification have enabled soy to be grown in a hugely diverse range of climates from the interior savannahs of Brazil to the windswept plains of North Dakota. The increased demand for American soy from the Chinese market has led to an economic bump while the US Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol has been established to ensure that domestic soy growth can sustain the exponential growth of the global demand. World demands for staple crops like wheat and corn tends to rise a consistent 1% per year in line with population growth, while consumption of  soy based products has increased an average of 5% per year.

The Rise of Veganism

Those who’ve made their living on cattle and dairy farming for decades may treat soy with suspicion, but soy consumption is unlikely to replace the demand for beef and dairy products any time soon. That said, the rise of veganism has demonstrated that even the most dedicated cattle rancher should consider supplementing their output with soy growth. Since 2014 veganism has grown 500% in the US. Out of concern for health, animal rights and global sustainability many Americans (particularly millennials) have chosen to eschew the ‘traditional’ meat and dairy heavy western diet for a diet rich in vegetables and plant based protein. While oat and hemp milks and seitan (gluten based wheat-meat) are on the rise, many vegans lean heavily on soy for their protein intake.

The future is soy

Shifts in global agricultural trends have seen the unassuming soybean become a vehicle for economic and social change with a global rise in “soy billionaires”. The Brazilian city of Sorriso has been virtually transformed by its status as a soy growth hub. The city was only established as a town in 1986 and has since doubled its per-capita income in a year, all due to soy production.

As soy production becomes increasingly ubiquitous, its status as a global agricultural mainstay is becoming increasingly untouchable.