Daily Footprint, #34 – Tofu

I was going to cover a specific soy-based product for this fourth post on meat-alternatives. However, I think it’s best to cover soy in general as the topic requires a post to itself. So, as a proxy for soy, I’m going to cover the most common meat-substitute in the world: tofu! A note about terminology: in Europe they are generally called soya beans and in the US they are known as soybeans. Either way, we’re taking about the same plant, Glycine max, which is native to Eastern Asia and first cultivated in China around 5000 years ago.

In terms of market value (FAO stats, 2016), soybeans are the fourth most important crop, globally, after rice, corn, and wheat and has the highest protein and fat content of these staples. You may be surprised to hear that wheat’s protein content is not far off that of cooked soybeans – hence the use of wheat to prepare gluten, as covered in the last post. A big difference, however, is that soybeans (being legumes) fix their own nitrogen from the air, while wheat requires a lot of nitrogen fertilization (which comes from natural gas). Soybeans, like other legumes, are key to sustaining the future population, maintaining soil health, and mitigating climate change. There are just a few things to watch out for, which I’ll cover in the next few sections.

Where are soybeans grown?

The U.S., Brazil, and Argentina account for 80% of global soybean production. However, it can be grown in many different climates and countries, from India to Italy. 70 to 75% of the world’s soy ends up as feed for chickens, pigs, cows and farmed fish. About 18 % of the processed soybean is oil, which is predominantly used for biodiesel, mainly in the EU. Only about 6% of soybeans are eaten directly by humans (as whole beans, or in the form of products like tofu).

A world map showing arrows to depict trade routes for soybeans, mainly originating in the US, Brazil and Argentina, and the main destinations being China and the EU.
Global trade in soybeans and soy-based products in 2014, from a Chatham House 2016 report on Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains. The trade map for organic soybeans would look fairly different, with China, the US, and Canada being significant exporters (followed by India, Austria, and Italy).

The funny thing about the relationship between the US and China, is that even though the US exports a lot of soy to China, several US organic soy milk and tofu manufacturers import a lot of organic soybeans from China. Several companies (primarily companies that are part of conglomerates rather than mission-driven companies) decided to switch from local organic beans to imported soybeans because they are a smidgen cheaper. In the words of a Kansas organic soy farmer:

The bottom line answer was that if we weren’t willing to provide the beans at a price equal to or less than the cost of available beans from China our proposal couldn’t be considered further. End of negotiation.

Why it’s important to choose organic soy

There are actually a few reasons why (I believe) it’s important to choose organic soybeans or soy products (like tofu):

Soy and the bees

A large proportion of soybeans are treated with neonics (neonicotinoid insecticides), outside of Europe where neonics are now banned. I’ve little doubt that neonics are very harmful to bees and other insects (see these three posts) and this is one of the real travesties of our time. Bayer (which now owns Monsanto) and Syngenta have shown no signs of changing their policies and their PR machines continue to cloud the issue and buy them time to continue business as normal.

The effectiveness of neonic-coatings on seeds has been questioned many times, but since the purveyors of genetically-modified (GM) seeds also sell neonics, they tend to go hand-in-hand. By 2010, the penetration of GM varieties of soybean had reached almost 100% in Argentina, 93% in the US, and 75% in Brazil. A high proportion of these are conventional soybeans are also treated with neonics. Buying organic (or pesticide-free) soy products ensures that they are neonic-free.

Processing of soy protein isolate

This is more of a human health issue, but conventional “soy protein isolate” or soybean oil (sometimes just sold as “vegetable oil”) is extracted from the soybeans using high heat and hexane. Hexane is a component of petroleum and ingestion may cause damage to the central nervous system. The hexane is removed after extraction, but some studies have found residual hexane in some soy products. Hexane extraction is not permitted under organic rules.

Soybeans and deforestation

I briefly touched on Amazon deforestation in the last post, and I intend to do a special post on this topic. For now I’m just going to briefly look at soybean farming and Amazon deforestation. As mentioned in the last post, animal agriculture was by far the biggest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. A 2004 World Bank report revealed that, from 1970 to 2004, 91% of the new cleared forest was used for cattle ranching. Then in 2006, Greenpeace released their Eating up the Amazon report identifying the main culprits of commodity giants Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Bunge, in combination with fast food giants like McDonald’s. This was not locals clearing a bit of land to make a living – it involved some of the largest corporations on the planet and the use of forced labor to burn the forests down.  An agreement (the Soya Moratorium) was set up to avoid the trading of soy grown in the Amazon, and it was largely successful. The rate of deforestation dropped since 2004, and soy cultivation accounts for only around 1.5% of deforestation in 2016-2017 (the major contributor being the meat industry).

The major risk to the Amazon at the moment is Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro. One of his early actions was to fire the director of Brazil’s environmental protection agency, who played a large role in reducing deforestation of the Amazon over the last decade. So there’s a need for renewed vigilance: check the country of origin and don’t support soy products that are derived from deforestation.

Two soybean (soya bean) pods hanging from a plant in a field.
Image credit: Juilo Garcia.

Sustainable tofu brands

Overall soy is a good product and buying ethical soy is not as complicated as some would have you believe. I mainly look for two things when purchasing tofu or edamame – organic certification and country of origin (the US works for me since that’s where I currently live). Some stores sell tofu in bulk – you can bring your own container and avoid the packaging. If you don’t have access to bulk tofu then I’d recommend taking a look at the Cornucopia Institute’s guide to tofu brands. Their soy scorecard is mainly based on the factors that I emphasized here: country of origin and farming practices.

The brands that I normally buy, Wildwood and Eden Foods, get good scores from Cornucopia. Brands that I would be skeptical of and that get a low score from Cornucopia include Kirkland (Costco’s own brand) and Archer Farms (Target’s brand).

For readers in Europe, this guide from Viva looks at soya sourcing by various European (mainly UK) brands. Clearspring, for example, look like a good brand. Taifun, which sources organic soya beans from Germany, Austria and France, is recommended by the Vegan Society.

What are your preferred brands? Please write a Green Stars review of one and enter the recurring GSP competition!

Impact of tofu versus whole soybeans

The carbon footprint of tofu is low – less than 1 kg CO2-equivalents per kg of tofu. Of these emissions, 16% is estimated to result from soybean production, 52% from tofu manufacturing, 23% from packaging, and 9% from transportation, in a typical scenario. So the carbon footprint of tofu is, not surprisingly, a lot lower than that of beef (see chart here). Perhaps more surprising is that about 75% of tofu’s footprint comes from manufacturing and packaging.

Another thing to bear in mind is that tofu is made from soybeans by pressing out the milk and then coagulating the protein from that milk. All the pulp (including the fiber and other good stuff) is left out and is typically just composted or used to feed animals. So, even though tofu has a small footprint, choosing whole soybeans further reduces the GHG emissions, packaging waste, and food waste.

It’s somewhat similar to the story with gluten and other forms of processed protein. They are all way better than eating meat, but the whole food version is, in turn, even better. I’m still going to order tofu in restaurants but will plan to include whole soybeans or other legumes more often when cooking at home. I don’t mind: I can pretty much eat edamame all day long!

Ethical rating for tofu

So, in summary, soy and other legumes should be central to our plans for a sustainable future. The main thing is that we should be eating it ourselves rather than eating animals that are fed with soy. Soybeans or tofu that are sustainably grown (e.g., certified organic) and do not contribute to deforestation (i.e., know the origin) should generally get 5/5 green stars. They are the two main things, but packaging and company sustainability also factor into it. I’ll cover some more processed soy products in another post soon. Cheerio!

19 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #34 – Tofu

    1. I have two options to try if you want to try again.
      1. Embrace the texture of soft silken tofu and use it in dishes like ma-po tofu. Try it in a restaurant and if you like it then reproduce it at home 🙂
      2. Try pan-frying firm tofu: the key is to toss it in a mix of flour, salt, spices and (optional) nutritional yeast. I mix two tbs of flour, two tbs of yeast, a decent amount of salt (1/2 teaspoon) and then add in spices like chili and turmeric. Then fry it under medium-high heat in a few tbs of veggie oil. I use Wildwood’s high-protein tofu for this.

      The brand makes a pretty big difference to the taste and texture – silken tofu that’s made well can be pretty good!

  1. Thank you for your article. It’s very interesting fact that we eat only 6% of soybeans since I’ve been eating tofu, edamame, soy sauce, kinako, okara, etc. since I was a kid.

    1. Thanks Kyoko! Yes indeed. Let’s say we eat all of the soybeans ourselves. I wonder how many people that would feed?
      Global production is was 335 million tons in 2016. Cooked green soybeans contain 141 calories per 100 grams. That’s 1.41 million calories per ton. So total calories is 335 million x 1.41 million = 472,350,000,000,000 calories per year.
      If we assume a person needs 2000 calories per day that’s 730,000 calories per year.
      So the annual harvest of soybeans would feed 647 million people.
      That’s almost 1/10th of the world’s population.
      But soybean farming takes up, I would estimate, only 2% of agricultural land at most.
      I don’t have an exact number for this a the moment but it’s a reasonable estimate considering that crops only take up 23% of agricultural land (>70% of agricultural land is used for livestock) and also using the data on land used for pulses from this source: https://ourworldindata.org/yields-and-land-use-in-agriculture

      So, in short there’s no problem feeding the population on just a fraction of our agricultural land!
      (Or rather, there would be no problem, if we could adjust our diets.)

  2. I love tofu, but I don’t eat so much of it because I had thought, perhaps mistakenly, that it was difficult to get non-GMO soy. Are you saying that the organic soy is not GMO? That would really make my day!

    1. Hey Pam! Yes organic tofu is not made from GM soy. That applies in general to organic certification – GMOs are not eligible. So go and enjoy some tofu!

      1. At least until the government succeeds in changing the labeling! 😩
        Thanks for always posting such quality information. 🙏

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