A defining feature of soy is the relatively limited impact that private sustainability governance has had in the sector, which is often attributed to the commodity’s undifferentiated character and ‘invisibility’ to consumers. Beyond this, however, our understanding of the governance structures, business models and power relationship in specific global value chains remains relatively poor.
In recent decades, soy has emerged as one of the world’s most significant agro- commodities and is strongly linked to deforestation and habitat loss, especially in Latin America, which is now responsible for close to 60 percent of global production. Crucially, only six per cent of soy is consumed directly as food by humans (mainly in Asia) with the rest crushed to produce animal feed, oils, biofuel and other industrial products. This ‘embedded’ character means that the intensity and extensity of soy production and trade is often understated in official statistics – and lacks visibility from a consumer perspective. Soy also belies the characterisation of agrifood global value chains (GVCs) as ‘buyer-driven’ with powerful agrochemical companies (e.g. Monsanto-Bayer, Syngenta and Dupont) and trading houses (e.g. ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus) located ‘upstream’ of the major retailers, with whom the most power supposedly lies. Finally, the role of soy in changing land use in Latin America has meant that the sector has proven to be a lightning rod for social and political struggles over land use, labour and community rights, and environmental justice.
Soy Governance Research
For the last 12 months, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at York have been investigating the governance and sustainability of soy – the world’s most globally traded commodity, much of it focused on Brazil. Only a very small proportion of soy is actually consumed directly as food by humans, with approximately four-fifths used to produce animal feed. The research team at York are exploring the barriers to more effective governance of soy, including through third-party certification schemes, like the RTRS and other multi-stakeholder initiatives, like the UK Soy Roundtable and Cerrado Manifesto. The research involves both quantitative modelling, through SEI and the TRASE platform, and qualitative work utilising theories of ‘sustainability governance’ found in the political, economic and environmental sciences literatures. These methods combined will allow the research team to identify the barriers to more coherent and effective forms of regulation, both public and private. Team members have carried out a number of field visits to the north, central-west and south of Brazil.
Soy Governance Workshop
In March 2019, IKnowFood hosted an interdisciplinary workshop, sponsored by IKnowFood and N8 Agrifood, which brought together some of the world’s leading scholars, alongside soy food systems stakeholders, to share state-of-the-art (predominantly social) scientific research, civil society and industry perspectives. The workshop had a particular focus on EU-Latin American links, which have been central to sustainability governance innovation in the soy space. But the workshop also sought to look beyond these links to examine the impact of emerging players like China and India, as both buyers and – potentially – the source of alternative mechanisms for regulating the social, economic and ecological externalities of the production, trade and consumption of soy.
A key objective of the workshop was to address the knowledge gap in soy governance by inviting speakers to address some of the following questions:
What is the relationship between the dominant structure of soy value chains and the form and effectiveness of sustainability mechanisms? Which are the key firms at each node of these chains and what is the nature of their relationship to upstream and downstream firms (and ultimately consumers)? What are the key differences between ‘niche’ (e.g. RTRS, GMO-free and organic) GVCs and those for undifferentiated soy? What evidence, if any, is there of key focal firms displaying policy entrepreneurship by promoting the uptake of strengthened sustainability mechanisms?
Despite soy’s totemic status in global environmental politics, the scope and stringency of current mechanisms are considerably weaker than for commodities like palm oil with which soy is often compared. This can be seen, for instance, in the low uptake of RTRS ‘certified soy’, which currently stands at 2-5% market share compared to the equivalent figure of 18% for palm. Industry sources attribute this to the low level of downstream demand and the unwillingness of traders and retailers to pay price premiums. Key questions here include:
What explains the low take-up of third-party certification in the soy sector? What options and possibilities are there for expanding the market for ‘sustainable soy’? Do more direct ‘zero deforestation’ and ‘soy moratorium’ commitments, exemplified by the Amsterdam Declaration and Cerrado Manifesto, offer a more effective mechanism for promoting the sustainability agenda? If so, how are these commitments measured and assessed, and by whom, in the absence of robust on-the-ground certification processes? What scope is there for promoting ‘sustainable soy’ by increasing the market for ‘ethical’, ‘organic’ and ‘non-GMO soy’?
The research team are now in the process of setting up a global soy research network, sponsored by YESI, designed to showcase York’s ongoing soy research and to catalyse international collaborations and research networks.