Choosing Responsible Soy Products Makes a Difference

The Round Table on Responsible Soy is working to develop sustainable strategies for the production of soy, which is present in food, consumer goods, and even biofuels.

You might be eating breakfast as you read this blog. Maybe you’re perusing the news over a bowl of cereal, a plate of eggs or some much-needed coffee. If so, welcome! This post is actually about you.

Let me explain.

I’m sitting in a conference room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, surrounded by colleagues from around the world: soy producers, traders and processors; banks; food companies; and NGOs from Latin America, the U.S., Europe and Asia. We are gathered to advance the concept of our joint passion — “responsible soy.” A strange passion, you might say, but it’s a fascinating one. Consider:

  • Soy is grown throughout the world, from the Midwestern U.S. to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, China and India.
  • Soy is one of the most important crops in the world, used not only for human food but for oil, animal feed, cosmetics and biofuels.
  • Soy is also a crop that historically has been associated with negative social and environmental issues: agrochemical runoff, water pollution, unsafe working conditions, land concentration and the conversion of some of the most species-rich lands in the world.

Yes, the soy on your supermarket shelf might be linked to deforestation in South America, the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico or child labor in India. But it does not have to be this way. Soy can be, and is, produced more sustainably:

  • Good farm design and management can eliminate many of the environmental risks like runoff and soil erosion.
  • Addressing the role of the farm in the larger landscape can help avoid problems like deforestation and species loss.
  • Following local and international laws and best practices can minimize labor and safety risks.
  • Rewards for more sustainable production can improve livelihoods and incomes.

And so my colleagues and I sit in this room as members of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), trying to design and implement a global system that stimulates and rewards more sustainable soy production. The RTRS was founded in 2006, and its Standard was approved in 2010. This Standard has codified many of the social, environmental and agricultural best practices that make soy production more responsible. We got good news recently about the Standard’s progress: The first 85,000 tons of RTRS-certified soy, produced following the good practices set out under the RTRS Standard, reached Europe last week.

But we must do more. We need producers to adopt the best practices outlined by standards like the RTRS. We need to give producers, especially small farmers, the skills and knowledge to do so. We need companies to request more sustainable soy and banks to finance its production. We need incentives for all actors to adopt more sustainable standards. We need consumers to care.

Why does this matter to you? Because you likely consume soy every day, whether you know it or not. It is in the cereal that you eat, the toast on your plate, the creamer in your coffee. The chickens that laid your eggs, the cows that produced your milk, and the pigs your bacon came from were fed on soy meal. Vegetarian? Tofu is soy, as is (obviously) soy milk. Did you drive to the supermarket in a diesel-fueled car or take the bus? There is probably soy-based biodiesel blended into your gas.

In short, you are a key part of the soy industry. You are linked to farmers in India, Iowa and Brazil. You can influence whether the soy on your plate or in your gas tank contributed to the felling of forests, the disappearance of species and the exploitation of workers. You can choose to buy products made from more responsibly produced soy, soy that protects people and the environment. You can vote with your wallet and with your voice, encouraging companies to produce and buy more sustainable soy. In the end, YOU are the key link in this fascinating chain from soy fields to the plate. Those of us sitting in this room are counting on you.

Christine Dragisic is the senior manager for agriculture, biofuels and forestry in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB).


  1. J. Marchand says

    I couldn’t agree more about the necessity to control the conditions of soy production. However, when you say “you can choose to buy products made from more responsibly produced soy” you are being rather optimistic, to say the least. While it’s possible to choose to buy only organically grown soy food products, thus lowering the negative impact on the environment, this only applies to a small proportion of soy consumption, at least in the West. What is more, those that I buy do not have any sort of “responsible” or “ethical” label: responsible soy food products are simply not available.
    As for other soy uses, when have you seen meat or milk or cheese with a label saying that the animal was fed only “responsible” soy, or “responsible soy” diesel.
    If only we didn’t need labels; if only all soy – and other – crops were responsibly, ethically produced. Meanwhile, please tell me HOW I can “choose to buy products made from more responsibly produced soy”. For the moment I have little choice in the matter.

  2. Shauna@BreathingProsperity says

    Wow! I thought I was making a responsible choice by consuming soy products, and an especially healthy one in choosing non-processed versions when possible. I had no idea that these pervasive issues exist, and I read a LOT, and try to be a conscious consumer. I buy fairtrade and organic (other than USDA approved) products and feel I am voting with my dollars. While I’ve wondered how the vegetarian food industry could maintain enough soy production for the increasing demand, I’ve never given thought to the hidden soy in our foods on top of it all. Thanks for this article, the information in which I will pass on, and thanks for your efforts behind closed doors.

    ~ Shauna

  3. nita smith says

    There was labelling on cadbury’s chocolate saying it was from a sustainable source and that it had the fair trade endorsement, but according to a documentary I watched, it was nothing of the sort. And what about palm oil, which is in everything from buscuits to washing up powders. We petitioned for labelling and the government said it would be too hard to do and if we wanted to we could write to the companies ourselves. Some of the members of the round table, i.e. Unilever, Cadbury’s, Nestle, Tesco, are all destroying the rainforests and the animals.

  4. Shauna@BreathingProsperity says

    Wow, I instantly thought of palm oil as well, reading this. I buy fairtrade dark chocolate and watched a (perhaps the same) documentary as well about the kids hurting themselves with machetes, etc., and how it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE to find true fair trade chocolate…Palm oil is a curse on these once-beautiful, rainforest covered tropical islands…sigh. What else is not labelled correctly, or is misleading…our coffee? Other? Is labelling a big enough, real enough solution?

  5. Yvonne says

    Imports, imports imports… The world economy relies on countries exporting goods to each other, but if you are far removed from the producers, how do you know how the food is produced? We need balance: controls on these growing industires in developing countires are helpful, but we should also be encouraging local producers by buying their products and knowing/commenting on how things are grown/produced in our own back yards.

  6. Diana says

    I am a vegetarian and have been scouring the internet for a list of responsible soy food products to purchase in person or order online. There are plenty of articles coming up about the Round Table and the importance or responsible soy but no practical list of small organizations to buy from. Any suggestions?

  7. Molly Bergen says

    Elizabeth Baer from CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB) responds:

    Diana — This is an excellent question, but, unfortunately, not one with an easy answer. Certification against RTRS only began earlier in 2011 and certified soybeans have just begun to come on the market. The first major purchases of certified soybeans occurred in June of 2011 and these were purchased by a group of Dutch companies, the Dutch Sustainable Soy Initiative (for more information, see: ). At this stage, certification against RTRS is still in early days and certified soy is not widely available in food and consumer products. Some companies have made time-bound commitments to incorporate certified soy into their products, such as Unilever’s commitment to “source sustainably all soy beans by 2014 and all soy oils by 2020,” ( ) and over time we hope more companies will make similar commitments.

    As companies begin to meet these commitments, they will be able to use the RTRS label to indicate their products contain certified sustainable soy – and you’ll be able to look for the RTRS label on products you wish to buy. Although your options for purchasing certified soy are limited today, you can contact companies you frequently buy from and encourage them to purchase certified soy – the more companies hear from their customers that this is an important issue, the sooner they are likely to act.

    RTRS also lists companies who have purchased sustainable soy certificates on their website:

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