Tofu Or Not Tofu? The Environmental Impact of Tofu

According to a poll by The Mirror newspaper, the second most popular New Year’s resolution is to start eating healthily. Penultimate on their list is to stop eating red meat. The reasons for wanting to cut down on meat can be many but I am not going into depth of potential reasons just yet. I know a lot of you who find inner strength in switching from red meat will find salvation in Quorn (a factory-produced fungus known as mycoprotein) and Tofu – just like I did when I tried my best to be ‘green’.

But before you rush to Planet Organic for your tasteless bricks of Tofu consider this:

According to a study commissioned by WWF-UK and the Food Climate Research Network, soy products –such as tofu and soya milk- could actually be worse for the environment than meat.

Let’s take a closer look at just a few reasons why I am back to red meat… 

Ethical concerns

Thinking of soya we all imagine one happy Asian wearing a bamboo hat, lovingly looking after the plants. You will be surprised to learn that your information is quite outdated. 

The United States, Brazil, and Argentina together produce about 80% of the world’s soy. 

China is known to import soybeans for their domestic use from the USA. USSEC Country Director-China Zhang Xiaoping said it would be difficult for China to quickly increase its soybean output because farmers in the Northeast provinces cannot get more land or convert land grown for other crops such as corn and rice.  The cost of raising domestic output is high due to rising farming equipment prices and limited arable land.  “Restricted by the disparity of weather and climate conditions, Chinese farmers are having a hard time converting existing crops to soybean fields in other parts of the country.  Therefore, China is importing soybeans from the U.S. and South America, where the cost of growing soybeans is lower,” Mr. Zhang explained. 

And just to give you a bit of an overview of how ethical is soybean production, the facts say that:

•Between 2004 and 2010, authorities of Brazil have registered 41 cases of slave labour in soy production units.

•In Brazil, there are well-documented cases of illegal occupation of land for soy fields.

•Soy and sugarcane occupation of ancestral lands caused the worst land conflicts, suicide rates, and malnutrition of indigenous children.

•Huge demand in soya has sparked illegal activity on a grand scale with new ports being built without any building application and with little concern to the environment, health, and safety of either workers or the land.

•Widespread deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe.

But wait, maybe it’s at least healthy?

Impact on your body

The first thing you learn about soy is that it is a genetically modified product. Even if we take out of the equation the potential impact of GM on the human body, we can’t deny the fact that crops were tampered with in order to make them stand against toxic pesticides.

•The average amount of pesticides used on soy plantation is 317.8 thousand tons/ha a year.

In 2009, 700 million litres were applied on 50 million hectares of soy fields in Brazil (equivalent to 14 litres pro hectare), the highest average in the world. 

All that, as you may imagine, ends up in your body with a potential of causing certain changes in your body. 

Yummy –tasteless- tofu! 

Impact to natural resources and nature

As if being destructive to the communities around the world is not enough, increase in demand of soya has also certain implications to the nature that I invite you to consider. The WWF-UK and the Food Climate Research Network report states the obvious: “Some substitute crops required are currently only grown overseas (e.g. soy, chickpea, lentils) “the land required for all these crops to replace beef and lamb is about 1,352 kilo hectares (kha), compared with about 135 kha to supply concentrates for ruminant meat. Which means that the substitution of beef and sheep meat with Quorn and tofu clearly demands more overseas land.”

Another source claims that between 2002 and 2010, the Cerrado region, Brazil, lost roughly 86 thousand km2 of its native vegetation due to deforestation caused mostly by soy plantations. That is an area the size of Switzerland taken over by soya crops in only 8 years. The same trend is evident in USA and Argentina. 

As to the water consumption footprint, according to recent research based on a Finnish manufacturer of tofu, averagely, 250 litres of freshwater (0.25 m³) is needed to produce a packaged tofu (270 g). The study focuses on Brazil, Japan, Romania and Egypt, where the primary products –soya, garlic, basil, hemp seeds and soy sauce- are imported from, as well as Finland where processing and consumption take place.

Tofu production

Preventing the CO2 emission?

Things are not so gloomy in this department, or are they?

In conventional production, a kilogram of raw beans generates about 150 grams to 300 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent, as opposed to 2,500 grams for the equivalent quantity of edible chicken meat. But these figures only count the CO2emission occurred during the production. As vegetarians and vegans have long realised, a meat-free diet can often mean relying heavily on foods imported from abroad. It means someone has to transport them and, whatever the transport, it will inevitably emit CO2, as well as other pollutants. Unless someone wants to sail across the ocean driven by man power of course; but even then one might argue… 

The same UK based report, referred to earlier, states: “All stages of the UK food chain give rise to emissions: Production and initial processing producing 34 per cent of emission; manufacturing, distribution, retail and cooking -26 per cent, and agriculturally-induced land use change – a whopping 40 per cent.

The Dutch government commissioned a study of the environmental effects of vegetarian “meat substitutes,” including veggie burgers, Quorn, and tofu. According to the analysis, a kilogram of tofu sold in the Netherlands produces about two kilograms of carbon-dioxide equivalent from the farm to the supermarket. That’s only a little less than Dutch chicken, at 3 kilograms of CO2-equivalent per kilogram of meat. 

With all that being said, there is unlikely to ever be a meal or ingredient, that we can confidently claim to be environmentally benign. This argument is and will always be about relative impacts.

With so many consumers falling victim to trendy movements, whatever they might be at any given time, I strongly recommend applying common sense and logic when it comes to making important decisions concerning your lifestyle.

Where do you stand? If you’ve reduced or eliminated meat from your diet, have you replaced it with tofu or other meat substitutes? Are you concerned about tofu’s carbon footprint? Perhaps the idea of another environmentally harmful food is overwhelming. Or perhaps you’re just doing the best you can without worrying too much.

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Tofu Or Not Tofu? The Environmental Impact

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