Globally traded and highly versatile, the soybean is the world’s largest source of animal protein feed and the second largest source of vegetable oil. Deforestation is the most salient, region-specific issue associated with soybean production.

This brief provides a summary of the main environmental and social factors that affect soybean production worldwide; however, it spotlights key players in the U.S. value chain and provides examples of actions being taken by companies operating or headquartered in the U.S.


  • Soybean production has more than doubled worldwide over the past 20 years, becoming a $115 billion market. Its use in livestock feed has exploded. In human food products, it is used as a cooking oil, a source of protein in meat and dairy substitutes and an ingredient in many processed food products.
  • Deforestation is the most salient, region-specific issue associated with soybean production. It is a significant driver of greenhouse gas emissions, displacement of indigenous communities and the decline of healthy ecosystems in key rain forest regions of South America.
  • In the Amazon Basin, Atlantic Forests and the Brazilian Cerrado, carbon dioxide emissions from land conversion are estimated to equal half of the United Kingdom’s total emissions in 2009. While the Soy Moratorium in Brazil has reduced the impact to the Amazon, deforestation in areas like the Cerrado that are not covered by the Moratorium remain a material business risk.
  • Investors should address risk in the soybean supply chain through direct engagement with their portfolio companies and by supporting relevant policies and multi-stakeholder collaborations, such as expansion of the Soy Moratorium

Environmental and Social Factors that Drive Risks

Commodity Background

For soybeans only 15 percent is sold as whole beans the remaining is processed into meal and vegeable oil.

Regarding processed soy beans, 68% is crushed for meal and 18% is crushed for vegetable oil. For soy meal, virtually all is used to feed pigs, poultry, cattle, and farmed fish, with only two percent of meal processed for food use.

Regarding soybean oil, most (95%) percent is for food use – cooking oil, and processed food products such as margarines, dressings and mayonnaise with the remainder (5%) for industrial products such as fatty acids, soaps and biodiesel.

Top Production Regions

The U.S., Brazil and Argentina account for 80 percent of global soybean production. 


Supply Chain

The soybean supply chain is complex and includes many sectors, however a small group of big companies control large volumes of production at key points in the supply chain.  


Company Examples


McDonald’s Europe is striving for 100 percent sustainably certified soy in its chicken meat supply chain by 2020. In 2014 the suppliers of chicken products to McDonald’s in Europe purchased more than RTRS Credits which covered about 20 percent of its soy needs. 


Smithfield, as a pork producer which purchases large quantities of animal feed containing soybean meal, has set a goal to have 75 percent of its Southeast grain-sourcing acres participate in a fertilizer optimization and soil health program by 2018. 


Unilever U.S. has committed to source 100 percent of its soy sustainably by the end of 2017. In the U.S., soy is its most important agricultural raw material as the oil is used in Hellmann’s mayonnaise. As part of this commitment, Unilever is partnering with ADM and other important stakeholders in a program promoting continuous improvements (in 2014, 100 farmers, representing 160,000 acres, were enrolled).