Soy No More: Breaking the UK's dependence on imported soy

Soy No More: Breaking the UK's dependence on imported soy

by Josiah Meldrum

Read Soy No More: Breaking away from soy in UK pig and poultry farming a new report researched and written by Feedback, Sustain, the Landworkers' Alliance, Pasture for Life and Hodmedod.

Fifteen (or perhaps closer to twenty) years ago, Nick, William and I were working for a small not for profit called East Anglia Food Link. There we did our best to unpick some knotty questions about foods systems as well as advocating for and supporting positive change locally by doing things like encouraging farmers to switch to organic and helping improve school and hospital food.

As part of that work we were asked to develop a label that could be used to identify locally produced food. In order to do that and for it to be meaningful we had to come up with a definition of local and a criteria for measuring it. We felt that the definition had to go beyond the location of manufacture and the criteria should include the origin of ingredients.

It’s fairly obvious that coffee, even if roasted just down the road, doesn’t count as local food (but could be produced by a brilliant local business). Things get murkier with mixed ingredient foods - jam made with local fruit but where 60% or more of every jar is imported cane sugar. The more we dug into the question, the thornier it became; beautiful sourdough bread made with flour milled locally from Canadian grain, beer made with malted barley from Scotland and hops from the US. But it was when we started thinking beyond ingredients to inputs like synthetic nitrogen and animal feed that our plans for a local food label really began to unravel.

In the end sausages pushed us over the edge. We decided we couldn’t match the needs and expectations of local businesses with East Anglia Food Links’ values and purpose. Sausages were the breaking point because though there were pig farmers working to high welfare standards in our area, all were reliant on feed that included soy – and more often than not that soy came from parts of the world where land (especially forests) had been recently cleared for agriculture.

It meant that despite standing in fields all around us, most of the pigs in East Anglia were effectively Amazonian; completely dependent on imported feed from South America with all the associated deforestation risks. Back then the UK was importing soy to feed to animals that, if grown here, would have required an area about the size of Yorkshire (now it's an area closer to the size of Wales). The UKs massive and disastrous overseas animal feed footprint was (and remains) completely invisible on shop shelves - East Anglia Food Link couldn't be responsible for a local food label that further obscured the truth.

Questions like these about the complexity of the global food system led us to the 2008 - 2012 Norwich Resilient Food Project which asked what a more resilient, re-localised food system might look like. Broadly, could a city like Norwich feed itself and if so what might we eat and how it should be grown if climate, biodiversity and nutrition were prioritised. Significant reductions in pork (and poultry) production and consumption were central to our proposed new system, along with an increase in pulses and other seeds for food (rather than animal feed). Hodmedod was established in 2012 to help address the gap in UK plant protein production and to raise the profile of pulses and agroecological approaches to food production and supply.

But we never stopped thinking about the global impact of the food we eat – particularly all that soy (about three million tonnes are imported for animal feed every year).

In 2022 our friend Jyoti Fernandes, campaign coordinator for the Landworkers' Alliance, visited Brazil to see how Indigenous communities organise. Reaching the standing forest meant a twelve-hour bus journey through soy fields, all of which were on deforested land. On her return Jyoti was determined that more needed to be done to communicate the impact of soy – to support Indigenous peoples protecting the forest and to help UK farmers move away from soy. We offered to help.

Firstly by using our UK network and infrastructure to help sell Brazil nuts collected by the Kayapo, making an economic return to the forest that would help to protect it, but also standing in solidarity with communities whose culture and identity are inextricably linked to the forest ecosystem.

At the same time as forming a trading relationship with the Kayapo, we’ve helped produce a report with Sustain, Feedback, the LWA and Pasture for Life: Soy No More: Breaking away from soy in UK pig and poultry farming. Soy No More offers three scenarios that would see UK farming significantly reduce its reliance on imported soy. 

Of the three scenarios we developed there is only one that doesn’t increase UK arable land, provides enough protein for everyone and removes all imported soy feed. Achieving that scenario requires a sobering 86% reduction in poultry consumption (every year about a billion chickens are raised and killed for meat in the UK) and 82% less pork.

All three scenarios are outlined in the executive summary below, but it's well worth downloading the full report. 

Models like the one presented in the report are incredibly useful tools when it comes to imagining what change might look like - it was a similar exercise that prompted us to found Hodmedod - but they shouldn't be read as predictions. Instead they're thought experiments based on the best available evidence and in our case, with boundaries set to help make best use of the time available. Be provoked, be moved to act - but don't imagine this is the last word!

Executive Summary:

Industrial farming is a primary contributor to global warming, environmental damage and land-use change. While a lot of attention has been given to methane emissions from ruminants the environmental impacts of the global animal feed supply chain have been obscured, in particular, the role of soy overproduction to feed the industrial pig and poultry sector.

In recent decades soy has become the primary protein source in livestock feed, and its overproduction has been the subject of scrutiny because of the role it plays in driving deforestation overseas in biodiverse regions such as the Amazon.

This report shows how soy supply chain certification initiatives alone will never be effective in halting deforestation, and that there is an urgent need to reduce our soy demand if we are to take meaningful steps towards climate change mitigation and reversing biodiversity loss.

For the UK, reducing soy demand necessitates an exploration of replacement protein sources for pig and poultry feed, as nearly 90% of the UK’s soy imports are used for animal feed – the majority of which is consumed by the industrial pig and poultry sector.

Furthermore, because of the precarity and exposure to price volatility of relying on global commodity markets for animal feed, this report argues that transitioning to soy free alternatives could also support a more resilient and economically viable pig and poultry sector in the UK.

In order to explore the feasibility of replacing soy with alternative feeds, this report models several different scenarios:

  • The first scenario models replacing soy in UK pig and poultry feed with home-grown legumes. If we were to keep production and consumption of pig and poultry feed the same as it currently is, our modelling demonstrates that UK total cropland for pig feed would need increasing by an estimated 60%, and for poultry feed by an estimated 78%. Within a context of increasing competition over land-use in the UK combined with the need to become more self-sufficient in food production this is not a realistic option.
  • The second scenario takes land-use into consideration, and demonstrates that if we were to replace soy with home-grown legumes without increasing total UK cropland area, then we would need to eat 44% less poultry and 41% less pork. However, with such a reduction of protein in our diets as a result of eating less meat, this would not leave enough room to increase production of plant-based proteins such as pulses which would be needed to supplement the loss of protein.
  • The third scenario not only takes land-use into consideration, but also food-feed competition. It explores what might be possible if current UK cropland area was prioritised for growing pulses for human consumption, and pig and poultry were fed on byproducts and food waste inedible for humans; such as heat treated food waste, insect feed, pasture, and co-products from pulse production.

Josiah Meldrum
Josiah Meldrum


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in Hodmeblog

Liberty Fields: Cultivating Taste, Tradition, and Sustainability
Liberty Fields: Cultivating Taste, Tradition, and Sustainability

by Amy Oboussier

A few years ago we were looking for a sweetner for some granola recipes, something UK produced and minimally processed. When our apple syrup order from Liberty Fields arrived we knew we were onto something special - we quickly added them to our short list of brilliant Guest Producers

Read More

Getting more pulses & grains into British kitchens with Holland & Barrett
Getting more pulses & grains into British kitchens with Holland & Barrett

by Nick Saltmarsh

We've launched ten pulses and grains from British farms as part of Holland & Barrett's transformation of their food range, available in their stores across the UK. It's a fantastic opportunity to make British-grown fava beans, carlin peas and quinoa, along with other pulses and cereals, available more widely and to support more diverse farming.

Read More

Julie Bailey's orchard
Apple Natural: wholesome fruit snacks from a traditional Cornish orchard

by Amy Oboussier

Down a warren of country lanes, not far from the Tamar Valley in Cornwall, is Julie Bailey's orchard Lower Trelabe, where she grows historic local varieties of apple and makes her delicious Apple Natural apple shreds, traditional fruit leathers that contain only the natural plant sugars.

Read More