Is soy milk bad for the environment? It’s complicated!

  • Date: May 13, 2022

As more people turn to veganism, the need for plant-based milk alternatives increases year-on-year. By 2026 the worldwide market for milk-alternatives is expected to reach approximately $37 billion. Although there are a few different players in the market, soy milk is one of the most established and popular. Many people have turned to veganism due to the environmental issues linked with having a diet containing meat and dairy. What about soy milk – is it bad for the environment?

Firstly, what is soy milk made from?

Soy milk is just one of the ways that the soybean, a species of legume, can be used. It can be made at home, or shop bought. The processes are largely the same – but the shop bought stuff is generally fortified so contain added nutrients.

To make it at home couldn’t be simpler. The only two ingredients are soybeans and water. There are plenty recipes online – if you fancy having a go, have a little look here.

So, is soy milk bad for the environment?

Pesticide use in soy production

Chemical pesticides are widely used in soybean production, and therefore in the production of soy milk. They help farmers increase their yield by fending off insects and other types of pests. Worse still, soy is often genetically modified. The soy is altered to enable it to withstand the herbicide glyphosate.  

The use of chemical pesticides comes with substantial environmental risks.  They can find their way into different water sources, harming the plant life and even causing physiological changes in aquatic animal species. Soil is also polluted by chemical pesticides, interfering with soil communities and altering dynamics. Complex interactions that ensure fertility can be lost. You should go for organic soy milk and other soy products where possible.

Fertilizer used in soy production

Fertilizers are often used by farmers to help provide the optimal environment for their crops to grow. Although soy generally does not require nitrogen fertilizer, the phosphorus variety is often applied. Much like the pesticide application, this can find its way into waterways. Reduced oxygen levels are associated with phosphorus fertilizer water pollution resulting in disastrous effects on aquatic wildlife.   

Land needed for soy milk production

Soy production has increased dramatically over the last 50 years, as has the area harvested. However, although soy requires vast amounts of land, soy milk only accounts for an extremely small proportion of soy used (about 2%). Around 75% of soy produced actually ends up as animal feed!

Soy milk requires about a tenth of the land needed for dairy milk. Not only does dairy milk need land for the cows to live, but also the land needed to grow their food – including soy!

Is soy thirsty?

The amount of water used in growing crops (or producing anything for that matter), is an important environmental consideration. After all, any water used is potentially being diverted from ecosystems that need it to thrive.

Soy milk fares quite well in this area compared with other plant-based milks and dairy milk. 28 liters of water are needed to make a liter of soy milk. This may sound a lot – but a liter of cow’s milk uses up a whopping 628 liters of water. Almond milk, the worst performing plant-milk when it comes to water use, it needs 371 liters of water per liter!  

Food miles associated with soy

Ideally, we should try and eat a diet consisting mainly of local produce. As well as health and local economy benefits, it has a positive impact on the environment. If produce is grown worldwide, it is effectively local to everyone. Soy loosely fts into this category.

Soybeans are primarily grown in North and South America with the U.S. and Brazil being the top producers since 2012/13. Soy is also produced in Asia and the UK is getting in on the act with varieties more suitable to their climate becoming available. This is great news in terms of food miles, and the resulting carbon emissions.  

The bottom line

Growing soy has a significant impact on the environment. However, soymilk only accounts for a very small portion of all the soy produced. Pesticides and fertilizers used can be harmful to the environment, however water and emissions due to transport are kept to minimum – unlike dairy milk. Soy milk is, generally, a great alternative to dairy milk in terms of the environment. None of the plant-based milks are perfect, but soy milk is one of the best!