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Soy in the UK: What are its uses?

20 Feb 2020
Walter Fraanje

This blog post looks at publicly available data on the UK’s imports of soy and its use for feed and food. It also considers the limitations of these data and the links between different uses of soy and land use change in South America.

The upsurge in forest fires in the Amazon last summer, and the destruction this has caused, have intensified the level of attention paid to the UK’s imports of soy. Soy production is known to be a major driver of loss of native vegetation in the Amazon and other South American biomes such as the Cerrado and the Gran Chaco. On a global level, about 75% of the overall soy production weight is used for animal feed, with much less being used for food (about 20%) and for industrial purposes (about 5%, mostly biofuel). The fact that soy is a human edible bean, but one that is mostly fed to livestock, links the topic of soy-induced deforestation to discussions on the role of animal- and plant-based proteins in our diets (see this Foodsource building block).

There is, however, some uncertainty as to whether the different uses of soy in the UK mirror its uses globally. Some have argued that most soy in the UK is in fact consumed directly as food rather than fed to animals. This blog post looks at publicly available data on the UK’s imports of soy and its use for feed and food. It also considers the limitations of these data and the links between different uses of soy and land use change in South America.

Summary findings

  • There is a lack of detailed statistics of the different uses of soy in the UK.
  • UK soy imports consist mostly of soy cake and whole soybeans that are crushed into cake and oil in the UK.
  • A combination of customs data, feed production data, and supermarket supply chain data show that:

- at least 90% of soy in the UK is fed to animals and at most 10% is used for food;

- soy use is particularly high in poultry and pork production;

- dairy production is also a significant overall user of soy, but the amount of soy used to produce a kilogram of dairy protein is much lower than for a kilogram of chicken protein.

  • The vast majority of the UK’s soy imports come from South America. This soy consists almost entirely of GM soy and is therefore unlikely to be used much, if at all, for food in the UK.
  • Any associations of UK soy with land use change in South America are, for this reason, most likely to be linked to animal production.
  • Only 20-30% of the UK’s soy imports is certified to standards that require soy not to be farmed on recently cleared lands.
  • The supply chain transparency initiative Trase has found the UK’s soy imports are associated with considerable amounts of land clearing in Brazil (24 kha from 2008-2017).
  • Detailed associations of the UK’s soy imports with land clearing in other countries are not yet available. That said, the UK sources much of its soy from the Argentinian Chaco, a tropical dry forest region and a major hotspot for soy expansion.

1. How big are the UK’s soy imports?

Very little soy is grown by UK farmers and the UK depends for its soy supply on imports. The amount of soy crossing the UK border each year can be estimated using UN Comtrade data. Chatham House runs a useful website based on these data which visualises resource trade flows.

Since the year 2000, UK soy imports have ranged between 2.2 and 3.2 Mt per annum. In 2018, imports were 3 Mt, the vast majority of which consisted of soy cake (66%), with smaller volumes for whole soybeans (27%) and soy oil (7%). Most of the imports came from South America (61% - Figure 1). A smaller part came from European countries (22%), consisting mostly of soy cake and soy oil from the Netherlands (73%) – a re-exporting country which itself sources most its soy from Brazil, the US and Argentina.

Soy in the UK fig1

Figure 1: UK soy imports in 2018 by weight. The vast majority of the UK’s soy imports come from South America (pie chart on the left). The UK’s imports from South America consist for the greatest part of soy cake from Argentina and whole soybeans from Brazil (pie chart on the right). Figure by FCRN, data from Chatham House.

In addition to these soy imports, the UK is also a net importer of meat, dairy, and eggs from animals that were likely to have been reared on soy. A 2018 report by the UK-based consultancy EFECA estimated that the UK’s imports of soy embedded in animal-based products amount to 0.5-0.75 Mt [1] – although this figure does not account for any exports of products from UK animals reared on soy. Some soy may also enter the UK as imports of soy-based food products (e.g. soymilk and tofu) or processed foods that contain soy oil. There are no customs data available on the UK’s imports of soy-containing foods specifically, but these imports are most likely to be low (see section 3.2).

2. What are the uses of soy in the UK?

The 2013 FAO food balance sheets [2] show that 94% of the UK’s imports of whole soybeans were crushed into soy oil and soy cake upon arrival in the UK. The remaining 6% (2% of the overall UK soy supply) were used as a whole-bean animal feed (>5%) and as the basis of foods such as soymilk, tofu and tempeh (<1%). Preliminary data for 2017 show a slight increase in the use of whole soybeans for food.

The UK’s soy supply, accordingly, consists mostly of soy cake (88%) and soy oil (10%) – see left-hand side Figure 2. The soy cake is fed to animals and over 99% of the soy oil is used for human food. In 2018, only a tiny amount of soy oil (0.0006 Mt) was used for biofuel [3]. The USDA provides more recent estimations (2018-19) [4], but only for the 28 EU member states taken together (see right-hand side Figure 2). These figures mirror the 2013 UK data to a great extent.

All in all, the 2013 FAO data show that 90% of the UK’s soy supply was used for feed, 10% for food, and a negligible amount for other purposes such as biofuel.

Soy in the UK fig2

Figure 2: Uses of soy in the UK (left-hand side) and the EU-28 (right-hand side), by weight. Figure by FCRN based on data from the 2013 FAO Food Balance Sheets [2] and USDA PS&D 2018-19 [4].

3. How much soy is used in animal production in the UK?

The UK government does not provide data on the use of soy in different livestock sectors, but there are two alternative ways in which one can estimate the relative amounts of soy used by these industries. The first is to look at feed production data. The second is to consider the use of soy reported by the UK retail sector [5,6]. We will discuss these two approaches in turn.

3.1 Soy embedded in feed

Defra’s Agriculture in the United Kingdom [7] shows that the UK feed market comprises various flows: commercially sold compound feed (45% by volume in 2018), feed traded between farms (31%), and raw feed materials, or ‘straights’ (24%) – see Figure 3. Data on soy use is available for some, but not all, of these flows.

Soy in the UK fig3

Figure 3: Different feed types’ share of the total volume of feed purchased in the UK in 2018 (provisional data) [7]. The 24% of straights includes the feed produced by integrated poultry units (IPUs), which accounts for around 7% (data from GB animal feed dataset [8]). Straight feed concentrates, which are used in farm-mixed feed, cover around 15% of the overall volume of purchased feed.

The UK government provides a dataset on feed production by commercial compound manufacturers and integrated poultry units (IPUs) in Great Britain – note that this does not cover livestock production in Northern Ireland, which is likely to use a significant volume of soy. IPUs are large poultry producers (mostly broilers) who run their own feed mills. Defra covers the feed they produce under ‘straights’ (see Figure 3) [7]. It can be assumed that nearly all the feed that is covered by the GB animal feed dataset is used domestically, because little feed produced in the UK (other than raw feed materials) is used for exports [9].

The GB animal feed dataset includes only one figure that pertains to soy: the use of soy cake by compound feed producers. Estimated at 1.13 Mt in 2018-19, this figure would seem to be surprisingly low if it were to constitute the GB livestock sector’s entire use of soy. This figure has led some to conclude that, in the UK, about half of the soy cake is fed to animals, with the remainder most likely being used for food. This seems implausible, not only because other sources confirm that very little soy in the UK is used for food (see section 2, 3.2, and 4), but also because the overall use of soy in the UK livestock sector is unlikely to be limited to the use of soy cake in compound feed.

While the GB animal feed only lists a figure for soy cake, compound feed may also contain smaller amounts of (toasted) whole soybeans [10,11] and soy oil [11–13] (these fall under the general categories of ‘whole oilseeds’ and ‘oil and fat’ [8]). Of the different flows of feed shown in Figure 3, the feed transferred between farms will not contain much soy, as very little soy is grown in the UK. The 24% comprising straights, however, are used by farmers in farm-mixed feed, which typically contains protein sources such as soy.

The data currently available on feed in the UK are insufficient to estimate the UK livestock sector’s overall use of soy. That said, the GB animal feed dataset includes data on the different types of feed compound feeders and IPUs produce for sub-sectors such as dairy, beef, pork, or poultry production. It is possible to estimate the amount of soy embedded in these feeds by combining the feed production quantities with feed composition data.

While feed composition data are generally difficult to acquire due to commercial sensitivity, average soy concentrations for different types of feed have been published for the Dutch feed sector (2011-13) by Wageningen Economic Research (WER) [11]. It is important to bear in mind that these values can only help provide a very rough estimation. The overall soy use in feed in the UK (now) may differ from that in the Netherlands (2011-13), and the WER report does not cover all feed types – fish feed, for instance, is not included, which would be relevant for estimating soy use in the Scottish salmon industry.

Table 1 shows the estimated amounts of soy embedded in different types of feed from compound producers and IPUs. The estimated overall soy volume in this feed amounts to 1.76 Mt, 63% of which (1.11Mt) is used by the poultry industry (Figure 4). The exclusion of all straights except for IPU feed, is likely to affect livestock sectors differently. The use of farm-mixed feed is likely to be low in poultry production (since it is largely covered by IPU feed), but high in pig farming. A 2017 survey by the Pig Health and Welfare Council found that over half of the pig farmers in the UK mix some or all of the feed they use on farm [14]. The use of farm-mixed feed might explain why pig farming scores low on soy use in Figure 4, but much higher in estimations of the UK supermarket supply chain (see section 3.2). It is difficult to estimate the level of farm-mixed feed in other sectors such as dairy production or aquaculture. Note that while dairy farming ranks second in Figure 4, it still uses much less soy than broiler production for each gram of protein it supplies to the UK population (Figure 5).

Soy in the UK table1

Table 1: Estimated soy usage in different types of animal feed in the UK 2018-19 based on the GB animal feed production dataset [8] and average soy concentrations in feed by WER [11].

Soy in the UK fig4

Figure 4: Estimated soy usage by compound feeders and IPUs in Great Britain in 2018-19 based on Table 1.

Soy in the UK fig5

Figure 5: A very rough estimation of the animal protein supply in the UK per capita per day, based on provisional data for 2018 from Defra’s Agriculture in the United Kingdom dataset for livestock [15]. Meat data do not include offal and are based on bone-in weights. A kg meat is assumed to contain 200g protein, 1L milk to contain 34g protein, and a single egg to contain 7g protein. Note that protein supply data is likely to be higher than protein consumption data.

3.2 Soy in UK supermarket supply chains

In 2017, KPMG and IDH released a report [5] on the presence of soy in the supply chains of four UK supermarkets (Asda, M&S, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco), covering about 0.80 Mt soy. A 2019 update on this report by 3Keel [6], covered 1.37 Mt soy and three additional supermarkets (Aldi South, Co-op, and Waitrose). Since findings of both reports cover a significant part of the UK food retail sector they are likely to be fairly representative for the whole. That said, the reports rely on a combination of primary data on soy use from livestock producers (59% of the soy cake covered by the 2019 report), and estimations based on average soy use for different products (41% of the soy cake in the 2019 report).

The report by KPMG and IDH shows that most soy was used in chicken and pork production, with smaller volumes for egg, beef, fish and dairy production (Figure 6). A very small amount was found to be used for food (0%), which conflicts with the 10% stated by the FAO. The reason for the difference is unclear. A possibility is that the retailer data used by KPMG and IDH might be imprecise for soy oil quantities in foods.

Soy in the UK fig6

Figure 6: The percentage of soy and soy derivatives embedded in the production of different food products sold by four supermarkets in the UK. Figure based upon date from KPMG&IDH, 2017 [5] and covering a soy volume of 0.797 Mt.

The 2019 report by 3Keel focused on the use of soy cake in supermarket supply chains. The figures from this report mirror those of the 2017 report (Figure 7). Slight differences may result from changes in time, the larger soy volume covered, its inclusion of salmon and seafood, and its exclusion of whole soybeans and soy oil.

Both the 2017 and 2019 report estimate soy use in the dairy sector to account for a much smaller portion of overall soy use (8-10%) than the use of soy in dairy cattle compound feed suggest (around 17% of the overall soy use by compound feeders and IPUs, according to Figure 4 in section 3.1). Possible reasons for this difference include the following:
    - Less soy might be used in compound feed for dairy cows in the UK than in the Netherlands.
    - The feed data in section 3.1 do not consider the use of farm-mixed feed, which might be especially high in pig farming.
    - The supermarket reports include data on several additional sectors (e.g. aquaculture).
    - The supermarket reports could be using relatively low estimations of average soy use in dairy products.

Soy in the UK fig7

Figure 7: Percentage of soy cake embedded in the production of different food products sold by seven UK supermarkets. Figure based upon data from 3Keel 2019 [6] and covering a total soy cake volume of 1.37 Mt.

4. Land use change in South America

It is important for discussions on connections between the UK’s soy imports and land use change in South America, to consider that most soy produced in South America is of GM origin (see Figure 8). A report by the European Commission found only a small part of the UK’s overall soy imports (<5%) to be non-GM in 2012 [16].

Soy in the UK fig8

Figure 8: Total soy production area (FAOSTAT 2017 [17]) and GM soy production area (ISAAA [18]) for GM soy producing countries. The ISAAA’s estimation of Argentina’s GM soy production area is higher than the FAO’s estimation of the overall soy production area, likely due to methodological differences. FAOSTAT does not provide recent data on soy production in Chile.

In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, GM crops are used very little for food but widely for animal feed. While the food use of GM soy is not forbidden, European policy requires approved GMOs (like soy) to be listed on food ingredient labels. This and public resistance to GMOs have resulted in little GM soy being used for food in Europe. A brief search on websites of major UK supermarkets confirms this; most only sell a couple of products containing GMOs (e.g. pre-cooked cornflour from South America). Links between the UK’s soy imports and land use change in South America are therefore likely to result mainly from the demand for feed.

The transparency initiative Trase found the UK’s soy imports from Brazil over the period 2008-2017 to be associated with close to 24 kha land clearing (about 1/1000 of the UK land area), most of which were in the Cerrado and some parts in the Amazon. As yet, Trase does not provide detailed estimations of soy-related land clearing in other countries. That said, the UK also sources much soy from the Argentinian Chaco, a large tropical dry forest region and a hotspot for soy expansion [19,20].

Only a small part of the UK’s soy imports (about 20-30% [6,21]) is currently certified as deforestation free (see this Foodsource building block for a discussion on different soy certification standards and their limitations).

5. Conclusion

The UK’s consumption of soy is an important sustainability concern, but too little data are currently available to get a precise overview of the different uses of soy in the UK. What is clear from estimations though, is that the vast majority of the UK’s soy imports (at least 90%) is fed to animals; much less (at most 10%) is being used for direct human consumption. Most soy, furthermore, is used in poultry and pig production. That said, other sectors – including beef and dairy farming as well as aquaculture – are still responsible for a considerable part of soy consumption in the UK. The data currently available is insufficient to accurately estimate different animal production sectors’ contributions to land use change in South America.


Many thanks to Matthew Jordon and John Lynch for their comments on this piece, and to Tara Garnett for her suggestions and edits.


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