Drivers of water and land use embodied in international soybean trade

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  • Oliver Taherzadeh, Cambridge University
  • ,
  • Dario Caro

International trade of soybeans has increased substantially over recent decades. Its environmental toll is routinely linked to deforestation and biodiversity loss. However, soybean trade also imposes a huge demand on water and land resources, in individual countries and globally. Such a burden, and its underlying sectoral drivers, is frequently overlooked within the current research and policy agenda around sustainable soybean supply chains. This study evaluates the Virtual Water Trade (VWT) and Virtual Land Trade (VLT) of global soybean trade and reveals which countries and sectors are responsible. Soybean-related VWT and VLT are estimated by combining physical import and export data and associated resource use information from 166 countries during the period 2000–2016. Over this period global virtual soybean-related virtual water and land trade grew by 298% and 250% respectively. In 2016, 812 Gm 3 of water use and 41 Mha of land use was directly embodied in international soybean trade. This corresponds to one-third of water and land used to grow soybean globally. Soybean-related VWT and VLT was mainly driven by demand in China, the Netherlands and Brazil, for soybean grown in the US, Brazil and Argentina. Animal feed is responsible for around three-quarters of this resource use. A reduction in the consumption of animal products or switching to direct human consumption of soybeans would reduce the overall demand for soybean production and associated resource use. Although welcome, calls for deforestation-free soybean supply chains do not go far enough to reduce the large, global water and land demand of soybean trade. The research and policy agenda around soybean trade warrants a broader focus on water and land use and whether this represents an efficient, and logical, allocation of resources within the context of food provision and national resource security.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Volume223
IssueJune
Pages (from-to)83-93
Number of pages11
ISSN0959-6526
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2019

    Research areas

  • Animal feed, International soybean trade, Sectoral responsibility, Virtual land trade, Virtual water trade

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