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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.

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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.

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  • 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? Jun 7 at 18:38

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