By Agustín Mascotena and Ryan Sarsfield

Soy is one of the most widely-consumed crops in the world, ubiquitous in processed foods, animal feed, and even some biofuels. Cultivation of this high-protein bean now stretches over one million square kilometres worldwide, an area about the size of France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined, and some expansion of soy has resulted in the clearing and conversion of natural forests, savannahs, grasslands, and wetlands, especially in the Americas.

Fortunately, there are tools available to channel soy expansion to land that can be agriculturally and economically productive while minimizing impacts on the environment. As soy cultivation continues to expand (the FAO predicts production will almost double by 2050, while the area under cultivation will increase by 27% above 2013 levels to 141 million ha by 2050), these emerging tools can help empower companies to meet and raise the bar for sustainability commitments.

A new partnership between the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) may help make this possible. The RTRS promotes responsible production, processing, and trading of soy on a global level. Its members include the main representatives of the soy value chain and members of civil society from around the world. The RTRS has pioneered a certification scheme that helps ensure soy production is “environmentally correct, socially appropriate and economically feasible” and prohibits the conversion of natural ecosystems like forests. WRI leads the development of Global Forest Watch, an interactive online forest monitoring and alert system, and Global Forest Watch Commodities, which analyzes the impact on forests of key commodities such as soy, palm oil, timber, and beef.

At the recent 10th Annual RTRS Conference in Brussels, RTRS and WRI committed to join forces to bring these tools together into a powerful set of information to safeguard forests in soy-producing regions. The agreement will integrate RTRS’s soy cultivation maps and guides into the Global Forest Watch Commodities platform, making it possible to visualize a sustainable soy landscape that protects forest.

The new tools are designed to orient responsible expansion of soy in Paraguay and Brazil (with Argentina maps to be included soon) by identifying potential High Conservation Value Areas (HCVAs). In tandem with GFW’s wealth of forest information, producers, traders, and buyers of soybeans will be able to easily compare potential soy-producing areas with standing forest and tree cover loss, and see the location of protected areas and other environmentally sensitive lands. In the same way, responsible soy production can be verified on the map from any computer, allowing RTRS members (producers, traders, and buyers) to communicate their good practices, reduce on-the-ground audits, and meet standards as new members.

WRI will help RTRS to adapt and customize these maps and other geographical information, as appropriate, for the GFW Commodities platform, as a critical step in promoting transparency in the soy sector in South America and the broader landscape of soy production areas. As producers, traders, and buyers develop their strategies for responsible expansion of soy production, they will have the information they need to better assess risk and mitigate impacts.

Further collaboration will incorporate technological advances in remote sensing and agricultural land use analysis to improve on the existing tools and maps, and deepen integration of GFW Commodities with the RTRS certification system.

As we deepen this partnership and begin the exchange of data, we hope to discover new ways to unlock the potential of responsible soy. After all, soy remains an important tool to lift rural areas out of poverty and has a leading role to play in feeding an increasingly populous world. By ensuring that soy development is done responsibly, we can safeguard the forests and other natural systems that we all depend on.

Stay tuned for updates at http://commodities.globalforestwatch.org/ and http://www.responsiblesoy.org/en/

* Editors note: Projections for “soy area under cultivation by 2050″ were added to the second paragraph thanks to a suggestion by Derek Byerlee (see comments).


Agustín Mascotena is executive director of the Roundtable on Responsible Soy

This article originally appeared on Insights.

BANNER PHOTO: The boundary between forest and agricultural land, Brazil. Kate Evans for CIFOR (Flickr).