In the great vegan vs. non-vegan environmental debate a big point of contention is the topic of animal feed. Vegans argue that a large percentage of agriculture should be attributed to cattle farming. For instance, 98% of soybean meal is used for animal feed. On the other hand, 88% of soybean oil is produced for people -- not animals -- while the rest is used for biofuel (source). Animal feed, it is argued, is a waste product -- without animals it would simply be discarded.

So my question is: Would reducing meat consumption put a dent in soy production, or is animal feed mostly a waste material and not the main motivation when it comes to soy cultivation? Would producing soy solely for biofuel and cooking oil be profitable, without the added benefit of selling the waste products?

If there were less animals, are there other applications for the soy byproducts? I can think of one -- addition to mushroom substrate, where soybean husks are used with great success.

3 Answers 3


I found some data from the American Soybean Association on their SoyStats page to help answer this. All data is for 2019.

Soybean Product Million metric tons produced USD per ton Total value
Meal 44.9 $336 $15.1 billion
Oil 11.0 $694 $7.6 billion

33.4 million metric tons (about 60%) of the soybean meal is used as livestock feed in the U.S., and the rest is exported (based on data from the USDA), where Wikipedia indicates it is also used as animal feed.

Based on this data, 67% of the money made from soybeans is from the meal, indicating that this use is likely what drives production. If global meat consumption were to be reduced in a meaningful way, we can expect that soybean meal production would also drop, especially since many of the products that soybean oil is used for can easily be made with other types of oil.

This is backed up by a study from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Their Global Market Report: Soybeans starts with the words "The demand for soybeans is currently tied to global meat consumption and is expected to grow, fueled by Asia" and goes on to say that 85% of soybean cultivation is destined for livestock.

  • That makes a lot of sense, but I wonder, if meat production should be reduced to 0, considering that there always will be some waste product left? Might as well feed the hulls to cows instead of discarding them? Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 18:38

I would argue that it's not a simple question and context is important. In the grand scheme I think you have to acknowledge soybeans as a dual-purpose crop. Whether you are producing oil or meal, the other is an unavoidable byproduct.

For an example of context that may be important, one reason that soybeans are planted so commonly is that they have a symbiotic relationship with corn when used in crop rotations. The primary aspect of this is that corn is a heavy feeder and depletes nitrogen from soil, while soy is able to add nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen fixation. Farmers could not just replace soy with another oil crop without collateral consequences.

I would argue that it's not as simple as different oils necessarily being interchangeable for use either. Different oils perform differently in different roles and there are a wide variety of different roles that soybean oil are used in from human consumption to industrial uses.

The money produced by meal vs. oil is also slightly misleading or at least missing context. Oil is roughly only 18% of the composition of a soybean. When soybeans go through processing oil is only a very small fraction of the total weight of product produced. So yes, soy meal grosses more money but when processed, a 60-pound bushel will yield about 11 pounds of crude soybean oil and 47 pounds of soybean meal. So there is more than 4x as much meal produced per unit than there is oil. So, per unit the oil is actually far more valuable.

Ultimately, some oil consumption will likely shift inevitably to other types of plant-oils in the provided scenario, but the demand for soybean oil specifically is significant and growing. Even if we stopped feeding soy meal to livestock, significant demand for soybean oil would remain and the infrastructure to grow, harvest, and process soybeans exists so it may not necessarily be easy or efficient to shift to other plant-base oils. Not to mention that would still necessitate crop land. Whether you're growing soy or rapeseed, canola, etc you still would need crop land so shifting consumption to other sources still is not going to dramatically reduce cropland in the way many vegans try to argue. The soy meal is a byproduct of soybean oil production, so reduction in soy crop size does not seem logical supposing no meat consumption/ no feeding of soy meal to livestock because the demand for oil is still there, whether that oil is produced by soy or another crop.


If human demand for oil went away a farmer wouldn't grow soy. 33% of his profit comes from it. The cost to grow soy wouldn't change regardless if it is grown only for animal feed or not. Take away 33% of a farmers net margin and a farmer would actually loose money if he grew soy just for animal feed.

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