The key issues for global importers, buyers and users of soybean and its products have long been price, quality and punctual shipment. Soybean processors always wanted low foreign material, damage and moisture, as well as high protein and oil content. Soymeal buyers required high protein content and low fibre, while soybean oil buyers valued good colour and low levels of free fatty acids. That made global trade in those commodities relatively simple even if there were frequent disputes among buyers and sellers.
This all changed with the release of herbicide-tolerant soybean for production in 1996. Soon after, environmental and consumer groups in Europe began to stir public concern about the supposed risks to human health and the environment from biotech crops. The characterisation of these crops as ‘Frankenfoods’ and other such derisive terms scared EU politicians into establishing complex regulations for their cultivation and the labelling of foods containing such ingredients.
Food retailers also began catering to consumer fears by promoting the sale of chicken meat, pork and other animal proteins as having not been produced using biotech feed ingredients. Thus, biotech content became a new factor in the global trade of soybean and related products that continues to this day in Europe and elsewhere.
Over time, many food manufacturers, retailers and some governments began to realise they had made a mistake in capitulating to the fear-mongering of biotech critics. As the price premiums for non-biotech soybean meal increased, animal producers began to also demand premiums for their products from food manufacturers and retailers. In many cases, retailers that had promoted the sales of pork and poultry meat raised on non-biotech feeds began searching for something else to promote that was less costly.
The issue that many companies chose to promote their products with was sustainability. Environmental groups have been increasing pressure on companies to make their products more sustainable by using less energy and water while emitting fewer pollutants into the atmosphere.
Of prime importance to the oilseed sector, the environmental groups as well as governments demanded that companies reduce incentives to clear rainforests, grassland and other critical habitats for the production of oilseeds, animal protein and various foods.
Highest on the list of concerns was the clearing of rainforests to plant oil palm in Southeast Asia and Africa and to produce soybean in Brazil as well as elsewhere in the Amazon Basin. Critics charged that by promoting habitat destruction, the companies were accelerating climate change through increased carbon dioxide emissions.
Realising there is no feasible way to continue producing the palm oil and soybean the world will need in the future without expanding the area planted to those crops, major international companies developed organisations to reduce the negative environmental effects of such growth.
Together with trade associations in concert with a few moderate environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, they created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS).
The two organisations established a set of rules that palm oil and soybean producers had to follow in order to be certified as sustainably responsible. The rules cover issues like protection of rainforests, labour and land rights, and community relations. Those wanting to be certified producers have to adhere to the rules, as well as be subject to third-party inspections to assure compliance.