Soy Profile

Soy is second only to beef as a driver of tropical deforestation. Its impacts are nearly all felt in Latin America, from which around three-quarters of all soy in international trade originates. Forty-one per cent of Brazil’s soy exports are estimated to originate from illegally deforested land, as are 5 per cent of soy exports from Argentina and 30 per cent of those from Paraguay. Each year the world imports more than $20 billion of soy grown on illegally deforested land (Lawson 2014).

Source countries and end uses

70–75 per cent of the world’s soy ends up as feed for chickens, pigs, cows and farmed fish (Brack and Bailey 2013). The remainder is used in a variety of industrial applications, including biodiesel production, and the production of paints, inks and resins. Soy is also used in industrial food production, for example in the manufacture of margarines, pastry and cooking oils. Hulls, a by-product of crushing, can be used as a fibre supplement in feed and food manufacturing (Brack and Bailey 2013).

The United States and Brazil account for two thirds of all global production of soybeans (USDA 2016). Argentina is also a significant producer, accounting for a further fifth, approximately, of production. The remainder is divided between China, India, Paraguay and a number of smaller source countries.

Soy production has increased by 140 per cent in the last 20 years (Dutch Soy Coalition 2014). In Latin America, the area under cultivation for soy tripled between 1993 and 2013, from 18.4 Mha to 55.6 Mha. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that soy production will continue to increase dramatically, from around 276 million metric tons in 2013 to 390 million metric tons by 2050 (Union of Concerned Scientists 2016).

Global consumption of soy is concentrated among a few major importers: notably, China and the EU, which together accounted for 63 per cent of global imports in 2014 (Union of Concerned Scientists 2016). The EU is the world’s second largest importer of soybeans and derivative products after China, accounting for almost 20 per cent of imports in 2014. There has been a gradual fall in its overall share since 2000, when the EU imported 35 per cent of global soy exports (Brack et al. 2016).

Relative importance as a driver of deforestation

According to a study by the European Commission, soy is the crop with the biggest impact on global deforestation. Among all agricultural commodities, it is second only to beef. Between 1990 and 2008, soy expansion accounted for 19 per cent of deforestation, and almost half of the deforestation embodied in products imported to the EU (Cuypers et al. 2013).

Quantifying deforestation that can be directly attributed to soy in Brazil is complicated by the fact that land is commonly cleared first for cattle ranching, with soy planted later. Nonetheless, between 1995 and 2005, 3.9 Mha was cleared in the Brazilian Amazon directly for soy production, 17 per cent of forest loss within that period. 17.1 Mha, three quarters of all deforestation, was for ranching, a significant area of which would later have been given over to soy plantations (Grieg-Gran et al. 2007). Further studies have broadly supported these findings (see Brazil country profile).

In 2006, pressure from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), headed by Greenpeace, led to a commitment from soybean processors and exporters in Brazil to refuse to buy soybeans produced on Amazon farmland deforested after 2006. While this contributed significantly to curbing deforestation rates within the Brazilian Amazon, it is widely viewed to have displaced deforestation driven by soy to other biomes. A study found that between 2000 and 2014, 20 per cent of all soy expansion in the Cerrado, a large tropical biome comprising woodlands and scrubland, contributed to deforestation. The soy moratorium does not apply to the Cerrado (Gibbs et al. 2015).

In Argentina, the third largest producer, soy has been the main driver of forest loss in the Gran Chaco and Yunga biomes since the late 1980s. Between 1990 and 2005 they lost 200,000ha and 17,000ha per year annually, respectively (Persson et al. 2014). In Paraguay, soy was the main driver of deforestation from the late 1990s. This led to the almost outright destruction of the Atlantic forests, prompting a ‘zero deforestation’ law that has had the side effect of displacing cattle ranching to the Gran Chaco. The importance of soy as a driver of deforestation has since declined by comparison with ranching, though this may change if soy plantations move into the Chaco on a significant scale.

Illegalities associated with production

There is evidence that much of the deforestation for soy production in the Amazon has been illegal. For instance, an investigation in 2002 by the International Finance Corporation found that legal reserve requirements were not being met on soy farms covering two-thirds of the land owned by Grupo André Maggi (GAM), Brazil’s largest soy producer (Stickler et al. 2004). The head of GAM, Blairo Maggi, was elected governor of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state in 2002. Though Maggi oversaw a major reduction in deforestation in Mato Grosso after 2004, most existing soy plantations remained illegal (in that the land on which they were growing had been cleared illegally, and this had not been addressed through fines or other forms of restitution). In 2009, as governor, he offered an amnesty to soy farmers operating illegally in the state, giving them four years to achieve compliance with the Forest Code’s legal reserve limits (Perlroth 2009).

Breaches of the legal reserve requirement are not the only documented illegalities relating to soy deforestation in Brazil. According to the National Land Reform Institute, for example, millions of hectares of forested public land were fraudulently transferred to private individuals in Mato Grosso and subsequently exploited for soy production. Local governments have also built roads into forested areas to serve soy expansion without the required Environmental Impact Assessments (Greenpeace 2006).

There is evidence that much of the conversion of Brazil’s Cerrado for soy is also illegal. Although eight per cent of the Cerrado is officially designated for environmental protection, the Government of Brazil’s own studies have shown that more than 4000 km2 of protected Cerrado forest was destroyed between 2002 and 2008 (Ministério do Meio Ambiente 2010).

An academic study published in 2015 used satellite imagery and government registries to assess the extent of soy-related deforestation and levels of compliance with the law and with the voluntary soy moratorium. They examined land use on thousands of individual farms and identified substantial large-scale deforestations not penalized by Brazilian authorities. The team also mapped already-cleared areas suitable for soy production to assess the potential for future expansion under the Soy Moratorium and determined how much illegal deforestation was still occurring for purposes other than soy and in direct violation of Brazil Forest Code laws The analysis identified over 600 soy farms in Mato Grosso state alone which had violated the Government’s Forest Code since the soy moratorium took effect in 2006, by clearing more than 20 per cent of the forest within each property. Just 2 per cent of soy farms assessed were found to be compliant. The study found that soy plantations were able to comply with the moratorium while still illegally clearing forest on their properties, because they were using the illegally cleared portion of the land for other purposes. The same study also concluded that the government was only identifying 15-50 per cent of large scale illegal deforestation events, despite the number of illegal deforestation cases detected having tripled during 2009-14 (Gibbs et al. 2015).

Illegal deforestation for soy is common in Paraguay (Dros 2004). A 2013 study (WWF Paraguay 2013) published satellite images showing more than 12,000 ha were illegally deforested between 2010 and 2013 for a single ranch in the Department of San Pedro.

One of the provinces most badly affected by soy-driven deforestation in the last ten years is Salta in Argentina’s Chaco region. While the Forest Law was being prepared, the then-governor of Salta rushed through approvals for hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest conversion. A new governor elected at the end of 2007 described the situation up to that point as having been a “festival” of illegal forest clearance authorizations. In late 2008, Argentina’s National Supreme Court ruled that the province had breached national legislation by continuing to allow deforestation during the moratorium and demanded a halt to forest clearance in four of the province’s departments (Seghezzo et al. 2011).

NGO investigations later found that more than 50,000 ha of forest were cleared in violation of the Court order. A 2013 Greenpeace (2013) investigation uncovered a number of other systematic breaches of regulation and a total failure to monitor compliance with the law. Little appears to have changed since, while the same pattern is seen in other states: the most recent analysis by Greenpeace of forest clearance in five provinces of the Argentine Chaco found that more than 60,000 hectares had been cleared during January-August of 2016, of which at least 35 per cent was illegal, since it occurred in protected forests. Greenpeace claim that in many cases, there is clear complicity of officials in the violation of the rules (Greenpeace 2016).

Soy exports and illegal deforestation in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. 2012/13. Unit: million metric tonnes. Source: Lawson 2014


Lawson 2014. “Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations” September 2014

Brack and Bailey 2013. “Ending Global Deforestation: Policy Options for Consumer Countries” September 2013

USDA 2016. “Oilseeds: World Markets and Trade” September 2016

Dutch Soy Coalition 2014 “Soy Barometer 2014” September 2014

Union of Concerned Scientists 2016. “Soybeans” 2016

Brack et al. 2016. “Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains Trade, Consumption and Deforestation” January 2016

Cuypers D et al. 2013. ‘The impact of EU consumption on deforestation: comprehensive analysis of the impact of EU consumption on deforestation’,Technical Report 2013-063 (Final Report), European Commission, Brussels, Belgium. doi: 10.2779/822269

Grieg-Gran et al. 2007 “The Dutch Economic Contribution to Worldwide Deforestation and Forest Degradation” September 2007

Gibbs, H. et al. 2015. Brazil’s Soy Moratorium: Supply-chain governance is needed to avoid deforestation. Science 347, 377 (2014)

Persson et al. 2014 “Trading Forests: Quantifying the Contribution of Global Commodity Markets to Emissions from Tropical Deforestation” October 2014

Stickler et al. 2004. “An Evaluation of International Finance Corpora on Financing of Grupo André Maggi (Project No 113444) in the Soybean Sector: Environmental and Social Impact Considerations.” 2004

Perlroth 2009. “Tree Hugger” Forbes, April 2009.

Greenpeace 2006. “Cargill—Eating up the Amazon” May 2006

Ministerio do Meio Ambiente 2010. “Plano de Acao para Prevencao e Controle do Desmatamento e das Queimadas no Cerrado” 2010

Tyrrell 2016. “Study shows Brazil’s Soy Moratorium still needed to preserve Amazon” 2016

Dros 2004. “Managing the Soy Boom: Two Scenarios of Soy Production in South America”  June 2014

WWF Paraguay. 2013. “Alarmante deforestación en Tierras de Teixeira, en Paso Kurusu” October 2013

Seghezzo et al. 2011. “Native Forests and Agriculture in Salta (Argentina): Conflicting Visions of Development” The Journal of Environment Development 20 (3): 251-277.doi: 10.1177/1070496511416915 2011

Greenpeace 2013. “Salta: El festival de desmontes no se detiene.” July 2013

Greenpeace. 2016. INFORME: Deforestación en el norte de Argentina (enero – agosto 2016). September 2016.

This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see news on soy here.