Soy: livestock farming care about the environment

The soybean’s greatest asset is its high protein content, which risks being, at the same time, its most significant fault. In the zootechnical field too.

Soy… Everyone is fighting for it: animal feeders, oil producers who prefer palm oil, processing industries that want to make soy milk (which is not milk) and tofu. Consumption is increasing everywhere, and more than 360 million tons produced globally are never enough, so stocks are shrinking. At the end of the 2020/2021 season, the USDA (American Department of Agriculture) estimates indicate a drop of over 11%. And it could be even worse if the production forecasts, which are also falling, were confirmed.

The United States, Brazil, and Argentina alone account for 82% of global soy production. The European Union counts just for 0.7% of the total, producing just over 2.5 million tons. One of the primary producer countries is Italy, where just under half of the European production is concentrated, followed by France and Romania. In our country, soy production is expected to grow, but this is peanuts compared to the world market. Especially since orographic constraints and cultivation difficulties (non-GMO plants are more susceptible to pathogens) make cultivation more complicated.

Demand drives the soybean price to rise, while pressure for an extension of crops increases, raising concerns about the possible environmental impacts. The temptation to take land from forests to be used for soy crops could have serious ecological consequences. The problem is not new. The effects on Brazilian and Argentine forests of the expansion of soy crops have been discussed in the past. So much that the “Basel Agreement”, which established the criteria for sustainable production, was launched already in 2004.

Now the market tensions re-propose the sustainability of soy production and question the development policies of this crop and the choices to mitigate the impact on the environment. According to the president of Aprosoja Brasil, Bartolomeu Braz, at least one-fifth of producers’ properties are intended to preserve the natural environment. At the same time, operators are working on an ideal balance between animal husbandry and forest to recover otherwise degraded land. The result of these activities was twofold, Braz underlined at a recent meeting promoted by the Brazilian embassy in Italy: the improvement of the living standard of the Brazilian population and the conservation of 25% of the forest within the production areas.

In Italy, 78% of #soy comes from areas where production, in compliance with the guidelines of the “Soy sourcing guidelines 2021”, meets the #Sustainability criteria, not involving #deforestation. Click To Tweet

Despite much progress, the environmental sustainability of soy production can still be improved. The initiatives of those involved in the sector and the feed industries go in this direction. Since 2015, Fefac, the association that brings them together at the European level, has developed guidelines for the supply of sustainable soybean.

This definition includes soybean produced without deforestation, with good agricultural practices and responsible working conditions that respect local communities. Criteria then reiterated in the “Soy sourcing guidelines 2021” presented at the recent congress of the Fefac. A responsible choice allowing so far a supply of 78% from areas where production, in compliance with the guidelines, meets sustainability criteria.

But how can we be sure that the soy used for animal feed production meets these criteria? We asked Lea Pallaroni, secretary-general of Assalzoo, the Italian association of food industries, member of Fefac.

“The guidelines provide operators with the schemes to refer to. In practice, supplies must meet a variety of parameters, some of which are mandatory. A third body supervises the correctness of the procedures, entrusting it with the formal certification – says Pallaroni – In some cases, the procedure is simplified with a certificate of sustainability at origin, such as for the US.”

And imports are the sore note of our entire agri-food sector. What is the soybean requirement for the Italian food industry? “About 4.2 million tonnes of soy are used to produce animal feed, much more than Italy produces. For this reason, we need to target around 85% of our needs on external markets, importing around 3.5 million tonnes.”

The #US, #Brazil and #Argentina alone account for 82% of global #soybeans production, the #EU just 0.7% of the total. Click To Tweet

Soybean is a substantial “hole” for our needs. Can it be filled? “Along with soy, we have to worry about corn, another fundamental “ingredient” in the diet of our animals. Until 2003 we had a self-sufficient production. Then the competition of bioenergy and the heaviness of the market has taken away from this crop 450 thousand hectares. It can be recovered, and Assalzoo has urged policies to support the sector while promoting supply chain agreements.”

Our dependence on feedstock for animal nutrition from abroad is partly linked to bans on the use of GMOs. But science offers new opportunities with genome editing technologies. Can they help? “We face an unmissable opportunity – Pallaroni adds – which has nothing to do with the problems raised for GMOs, as there is no insertion of external DNA. Not surprisingly, these technologies have earned a recent Nobel Prize to some researchers. We hope there will be no ideological opposition. Still, that work will be done to implement them, which also promises environmental benefits, such as reduced water consumption and reduced use of agro pharmaceutical.”

For #soybeans, #corn, and more generally for everything related to #AnimalNutrition, we have been working for some time to reduce their #EnvironmentalImpact. Click To Tweet

For soybean, corn and generally for everything related to animal nutrition, work has been going on for a long time to reduce the environmental impact. Based on professionalism and efficiency, the “formula” of Italian farms goes in the same direction, achieving the best balance between environmental protection and production.

This is demonstrated by the ability, confirmed over the years, to obtain more milk, more meat and more eggs with fewer stables and fewer animals. Thanks to our farming’s constant research and innovation, we should define it as professional farmings or “precision farming”, rather than simply intensive farming.


Professional journalist, graduated in veterinary medicine, director of journals dedicated to animal husbandry and editor in chief of journals in the agricultural sector, he has held coordination positions in publishing companies. Author of books on animal breeding, he is involved in the divulgation of technical, political and economic subjects of interest to the livestock sector.