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Fields & Applications Environmental, Liquid Chromatography

The Taste of Devastation

The number of soya beans produced worldwide has increased 15-fold since the 1950s (1). There are various reasons for this, for example, in China, a top importer country, soya products, such as tofu, soya milk, soy sauce, are consumed daily – in a similar way to milk and cheese in Europe. Moreover, soya-based vegan alternatives have become increasingly popular globally. People are incorporating more soya into their diets because of the high protein content and versatility of soya-based recipes when it comes to adding nutritional value to a meal. The rising demand for animal feed, grain and oil, and industrial soya uses is another factor. Sadly, the growth of the soya bean industry is leading to widespread deforestation. Over 160,000 square miles, or an area nearly the size of California, were lost to deforestation between 2004 and 2017 in several hotspots around the world (2,3). 

In the early 2000s, public outrage over Amazon deforestation for soya production caused transnational grain companies, including Cargill, Bunge, and Brazil’s Amaggi, to join with soya producers and environmental NGOs like Greenpeace to sign the voluntary Amazon Soy Moratorium. The Moratorium banned the direct conversion of Amazon forests to soya crops after 2006. However, deforestation continues to be a big issue. Soya beans from deforested areas in Brazil can be vaguely labeled as a “product of another country” to be sold around the world (4).

The problem of balancing food demand and forest protection is complex, but we can do one thing: avoid unscrupulous producers for profit. And that’s why we’re working on identifying soybeans that have been grown on land affected by deforestation. 

Currently, for soya and soya products, there is no suitable “library.” Therefore, we are facing many challenges in the pursuit of non-target analysis. First, the soya matrix is very complex, which makes finding reliable biomarkers from countless soya ingredients tricky. Second, researchers will often need a large number of samples to establish a sample library to improve the accuracy of the results; these samples must come from trusted producers and commercial company partners to ensure authenticity. Third, when it comes to agricultural products, the chemical information they contain is also affected by the year and season; soya beans are no different and are affected by the climate, water, and soil, and so on – even on the same farm. In short, we need to collect and run high-resolution data analysis on thousands of samples – which is also difficult. 

We face serious analytical challenges and demand a lot from our methods and instruments – and that’s exactly what I have been trying to tackle during my PhD research. Fortunately, technology has improved significantly over the past decade, which has increased the accuracy of the results obtained in food research. For example, the first LC system I used in 2012 was the Agilent 1100-UV, which took half an hour to analyze a single compound. Today, the laboratory uses Agilent’s UHPLC Q-TOF, which allows us to complete non-targeted high-resolution screening within 20 minutes; thousands of sets of useful compound information can be obtained, with higher analysis efficiency.

Despite the challenges, one main aim of our research (made possible by Agilent Thought Leader Award presented to Chris Elliott, Professor at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, in 2021) is to provide an analytical method that can identify the origin of soya beans by establishing standard analytical methods for soya bean traceability. So far, the results have been promising – we have shown that it is possible to confirm the country the soya was grown in using mass spec. We used ICP-MS in our research for elemental analysis – about 50 elements were used to distinguish soya from different countries. Volatile organic compounds in soya were analyzed with GC-MS, and we discovered 40 VOCs that can be used to differentiate between different growing regions. Finally, we used liquid chromatography coupled with LC-QTOF to fingerprint non-volatile organic compounds, and we found more than 2000 features – showing nice separation amongst soya samples from different growing countries.

Really, this research is just a starting point. More work is needed to help consumers become truly informed as to whether the products they’re buying are linked to deforestation. In my view, we need more groups working on the analytical challenges of linking soya products with their growing regions – making the solutions faster, cheaper, and more accurate. But we also need suppliers who care about deforestation to cooperate and work with researchers and do their part, using the information to more carefully choose their suppliers and help inform consumers.

Meet Yunhe Hong

I am originally from China, and I attended the China International Food Safety & Quality Conference in Beijing in 2019. Chris Elliott led the research team that attended the conference, which showcased a series of fascinating presentations. (In fact, many of the important articles on the research topics of Food Safety & Quality have been published by his team.) After the conference, I sent my CV, and subsequently set out on a new adventure to Belfast, starting my PhD work in his team.

I had heard about culture shock before moving abroad for my PhD and was well prepared for it. But after joining the research group, everything went very smoothly. The feeling in Elliott’s research team is inclusive, cordial, and welcoming. As for “cultural surprises,” perhaps the food… I miss hot pot meals!

Every sword has two sides. Studying in an unfamiliar country is a challenge. It is important for anyone considering it to think about what they’re trying to achieve before deciding whether or not to go for it. You may encounter many difficulties, but there will always be someone to help you overcome them. So don’t be afraid, the sun always comes after the storm!

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  1. WWF, “Soy Overview” (2022). Available at:
  2. F Leijten et al., “The influence of company sourcing patterns on the adoption and effectiveness of zero-deforestation commitments in Brazil’s soy supply chain,” Environ Sci Policy, 128, 208-215 (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2021.10.032.
  3. CHL Silva Junior et al., “The Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate in 2020 is the greatest of the decade,” Nat Ecol Evol, 5, 144-145 (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-01368-x. 
  4. New Food Magazine, “Is that soya sustainable” (2021). Available at:
About the Author
Yunhe Hong

Yunhe Hong, School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast, UK

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