/ ©: WWF


Soybeans were first cultivated in China nearly 6,000 years ago, making them one of the first domesticated food crops.

Today, soy is a billion-dollar industry that spans continents, feeds millions of livestock, and mostly unbeknown to us, has become a major part of our diets.
 / ©: Edward Parker / WWF
Intensive cultivation of soybeans using rotary irrigation system, Goiás State, Brazil.
© Edward Parker / WWF

King of beans

The soybean is the 'king of beans'. It contains 38% protein — 2x as much as pork, 3x more than eggs, and 12x more than milk. Also the protein in soybean has a more complete range of essential amino acids than most other foods. Dry, it also contains 18.4% unsaturated fat.

The many uses of soybeans

Soybean meal was first used as a by-product from the crushing of soybeans for oil. It was developed as a substitute for fish meal that left no fishy taste.

Today, not only is soy the second most consumed oil in the world (after palm oil), but the meal is a major ingredient in feed, especially for chickens and pigs.

That means by eating meat and eggs we also indirectly consume soy. The same goes for dairy products, since soy is also fed to cattle. Soybean meal is currently the largest source of protein feed in the world.

Soy hits the “big time”

Due to the development of new seed varieties, improved fertilzers, and mechanised planting and cultivation, a monocrop soybean production system was developed in the United States. This monocrop technology has been adapted to local conditions and has now spread throughout the world, including into some of the world's most biodiverse ecoregions.

Rapid expansion into natural habitats

The rapid expansion of soybean cultivation into the natural habitat of the Brazilian Cerrado (a relatively flat, mixed woodland and savannah area of central Brazil) and other ecosystems is threatening wildlife and biodiversity. It’s also damaging water reserves and soil quality, among many other adverse effects.
Find out more about problems relating to soybean plantations

Soy production

  • Between 1961 and 2009, global soy production expanded nearly 10-fold, and it has doubled since the mid-1990s
  • On average, each European consumer eats 87kg of meat and 250 eggs per year. To produce this, 400 m2 of land per person is needed
  • The US, Brazil, Argentina and China produce 85% of the world’s soy (2011)
  • The US used to produce the most soy, but large amounts of fertile land, water resources and low labour costs have fuelled explosive growth in South America, particularly in Brazil
  • Close to 85% of the global soybean crop is crushed for oil and meal
Typical lowland area of Cerrado landscape.


  • Increase in incomes and meat consumption in emerging countries;
  • Increase in population and demographical changes (rural to urban) in emerging countries;
  • Liquid credit and speculative investments.
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In addition to a general increase in demand for food products due to a growing population, economic development tends to lead to an increase in demand for meat, dairy, vegetables and fruit and fats. In order to feed a larger, more urban and richer population, food production (net of food used for biofuels) will have to increase by 70%.

Soy consumption

  • Approximately 75% of soybean is used for animal feed.
  • China is by far the largest importer of soybeans (61% of total imports, or 55 million tons) and the country is expected to yearly increase its soy imports (only soybeans) by 5% and buy 50% more by 2020/21, reaching 110 million metric tons of soybeans imports. In 2011, China accounted for 43% of Brazilian (top destination) and 25% of Argentinean soy exports.
  • In 2007, the EU-27 countries together imported 24.8 million tonnes of soy meal, 15.5 million tonnes of soybeans and almost 1 million tonnes of soy oil.
  • Soybean imports to Asia are expected to grow from approximately 75 million metric tonnes in 2009 to 130 million metric tonnes in 2019. Meanwhile, imports to non-Asian countries will only grow slightly during the same period (source: Bunge unpublished data, 2012).
Average grams of soy used per kilo of product
© wwf

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