Switzerland is a sustainable soy pioneer, but not yet a game changer

Switzerland imported around 260,000 tons of soybean last year. Keystone / Andre Penner

The Alpine nation is the birthplace of the sustainable soy industry, but it’s bound to have a limited global impact, unless its commodity firms jump on board.  

This content was published on July 17, 2020 - 11:00

The year 2020 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. However, there is also some cause for cheer in Swiss sustainability circles. The Swiss Soy Network - created in 2010 to ensure uptake of sustainable soy - is celebrating ten years of existence.  

The story began even earlier, in 2004, when Swiss supermarket chain Coop teamed up with WWF Switzerland and ProForest to develop the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production. It was the first time that minimum criteria on what constitutes environmentally, socially and economically responsible soy production were defined.  

This was a significant moment for the sustainability movement because soy production was expanding rapidly across the globe with little concern for deforestation, land rights and indiscriminate pesticide use. The rise of consumer awareness and activism meant that producers and companies were obliged to take action to change the narrative.  

“Responsible companies that purchase soy and soy products want to be sure that they are not contributing to these negative impacts, while responsible soy producers need a mechanism for reassuring their customers that they are acting responsibly,” explained the 2004 report.  

The Basel Criteria helped lay the groundwork for this and led to the creation of the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS) in Zurich in 2006. That same year, the first shipment of 1,000 tons of certified soy meal was imported into the country. In 2010, the Swiss Soy Network was born and today comprises 29 members, including the retailers Migros, Coop, Denner and Lidl, the Swiss Farmers' Union, the Swiss Feed Manufacturers' Association and WWF Switzerland. 

Raising the bar 

Figures released this month by the Network show that in 2019, Switzerland imported around 260,000 tons of soybeans. Half of that amount came from Europe and the other half from Brazil. Around 95% of the imported soybeans came from sustainable cultivation, according to the Swiss Soy Network. 

A study commissioned by the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and carried out by the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences in Bern has shown that the criteria have had a positive impact. According to the study, the sustainability standards set by Proterra and the Round Table on Responsible Soy ensure that Swiss soy imports come from areas free of deforestation, problematic working conditions or conflicts with local communities.  

According to the study, Brazilian producers and international agricultural companies have responded to Switzerland's demand for sustainable soy and are offering certified, GM-free soybeans. This shows that Switzerland can influence the global supply chain despite its small market share, the researchers claim. They advise the Network to further develop the standards already in place and to share its experience with European stakeholders so that certified sustainable soybeans can become more widely accepted.  

Criticism 

But not everyone buys the Swiss Soy Network’s claim that 95% of Swiss soy imports are from sustainable cultivation.  

“That is unlikely – maybe not the figure as such, but the definition of or the criteria for sustainability,” says Silvie Lang, commodities specialist at Swiss NGO Public Eye.   

One criticism is that the Round Table on Responsible Soy offers two options for sustainable certified soy: mass balance and segregated. Segregated is the premium certification system and involves keeping sustainable soy separate from conventional soy all the way from farm to the final product. Mass balance is a less premium option, where the soy is mixed but resold in the correct proportions. It is not clear how much of Swiss imports fall into each category.  

Another criticism, also raised in the study, is the use of pesticides. According to Lang, the bulk of pesticides in Brazil are used on soybean, corn and sugarcane crops. In 2017, pesticides applied on soybean accounted for 52% of pesticide sales in the country. Paraquat, a highly hazardous pesticide forbidden in over 50 countries, is also prohibited under the RTRS, but there is an exemption clause in the certification standard. 

“As long as Paraquat and other highly hazardous pesticides are allowed under the RTRS, soy cannot be considered sustainable,” says Lang.  

There is also some skepticism over the study’s claims that Switzerland’s demand for sustainable soy is influencing global supply chains. Lang puts it down to pressure from the European Union, which has significantly more buying power than Switzerland. However, one area where Switzerland has the opportunity to make a global difference is getting Swiss-based commodity firms - which trade in millions of tons of soy for world markets – to insist on sustainable soy.  

“Switzerland is one of the biggest, if not the biggest hub for soft commodities trading. Its influence on sustainable commodity markets could thus be much, much larger than Swiss imports,” says Lang.  


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