True cost of crop: Soy milk may be more environmentally harmful than dairy, study finds

  • 18 Aug 2020 — Soy milk’s plant-based halo often connotes environmental sustainability among consumers, but new research from the UK argues that the cultivation of its crop may be more detrimental to the ecosystem than dairy. A study published by the University of Nottingham and the Sustainable Food Trust flags that this contrast is due to the clearance of vast areas of rainforest for the purposes of soy farming. FoodIngredientsFirst speaks to Richard Young, Policy Director of the trust and an author of the study, to weigh the true costs of cow’s milk against its plant-based popular alternative.
  • “Sections of the vegan movement have run very aggressive campaigns against dairy farming. We feel it is wonderful that people feel passionate about these issues and agree that change is urgently needed. The problem is that the change they seek is based on only partial scientific understanding and will make things worse rather than better as they assume,” Young stresses.
  • Livestock, Young further argues, may in fact play an integral role in preserving food chains. “Our analysis of the evidence suggests to us that grazing animals are of absolute paramount important to sustainable food systems and that grass and ruminants are the only way to restore degraded soil at scale, while still producing food for humans,” he says.
  • He does, however, recognize the many faults with intensive dairy farming including welfare concerns. “There is an ill-informed assumption, for example, that crops can be grown for human consumption on an area of land year in year out without returning the land to grass. That’s the mistake the farmers have made on the 40 percent of UK soils that are now badly degraded. It’s also the mistake the Romans made in North Africa, and the soils there are still degraded 2,000 years later.”
  • Taking the value of total milk consumption in the UK in the period of 2017/18, the authors of the study calculated that cows can produce 85 L of milk for every kilogram of soy they are fed in the form of feed. In comparison, one kilogram of soy can produce between 4.25 and 7.5 L of milk.
  • “Soybean meal has a very high carbon footprint if it is derived from crops grown on land recently converted from forest or savannah. The cultivation and consumer acceptance of genetically modified (GM) soy bean crops are issues in some regions, especially Europe. Increased global demand and legislative restrictions on the importation of GM soybeans into the EU from North America initially stimulated production in South America, on land which was previously rain forest or savannah,” Young explains.
  • Response to critics
    Toni Vernelli, of the charity Veganuary that encourages people to make a pledge to avoid animal-based products in the month of January, argued that the study was wrong to suggest that cow’s milk was more eco-friendly than soy milk. “Most of the environmental impact of cow’s milk comes from the cows themselves – in the methane they belch and fart out – not from the feed they eat,” she said.
  • Responding to this remark, Young tells FoodIngredientsFirst: “Tony’s comment is understandable, but it overlooks two key facts about methane. Taken together, fossil fuels are not only the biggest source of CO2, they are also the biggest source of methane lost to the atmosphere. Methane is highly potent and levels need to be reduced, but it is short-lived, whereas CO2 is very long-lived and accumulates in the atmosphere.”
  • “As such, the true impact of methane from cattle is about 80 percent lower than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s [IPCC] methodology suggests. In addition, while fossil methane eventually leaves additional CO2 in the atmosphere, grazing animals only recycle atmospheric methane via photosynthesis and the plants they eat. The methane does have a warming impact but if cattle numbers are stable it doesn’t actually add to it.”
  • Concerns over plant-based milks
    Young underscores a concern shared among members of his team that almond, soy and coconut drinks may be more environmentally detrimental than previously thought. “That is if we include the large and small animals that lose their habitat or die for other reasons associated with the production of the main ingredients,” he notes.
  • Oat milk is perhaps one exception to this, but it is not suitable for babies and children. It is nutritionally inferior to cows’ milk and from avoidance of waste perspective, the residue needs to be fed to pigs, which hardly makes it an ideal option from a vegan perspective.
  • As such, the researchers hope to stimulate a more informed debate than we’ve seen so far and bring some balance to discussions.
  • “We totally respect the right of ethical vegans to avoid cows’ milk and we recognize that some people are lactose intolerant. We also recognize that there are many faults with intensive dairy farming including welfare concerns,” says Young.
  • “However, rather than turning away from this we are attempting, in our small way, to encourage the government and the public to support high welfare and environmental farming systems where the benefits of an integrated approach are recognized and animal contentment rates alongside the rather cold and formulaic assessments of animal welfare,” he concludes.
  • This is not the first time that the environmental impacts of soy have come into focus. In the context of replacing palm oil cultivation with less detrimental alternatives, soy, next to corn and rapeseed were found to be “even worse” as these crops are much more land-hungry, according to research by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Oil Palm Task Force.
  • Curbing soy overconsumption with alternatives
    As the market for plant-based products is showing double-digit growth, alternatives to soy are also opening up plant-based options to consumers. Ingredients derived from peas, potatoes or fava beans are challenging soy’s market share in the meat analog industry. These latest varieties of plant proteins offer new textures, tastes and nutritional profiles, which can be used to texturize or stabilize a range of products.
  • Demand for soy in Europe, in particular, is declining, according to a report by Hydrosol. However, the producer of stabilizing and texturizing ingredients stresses that the region is “dangerously behind” when it comes to meeting its responsible sourcing and no-deforestation pledges.

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