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Our Soy Habit Has Environmental Consequences

Like many people at the natural foods store, I buy a lot of soy products. I'm not vegetarian or vegan, but I steer away from meats and dairies. I use vanilla soymilk with my cereal, I'll pick up Soy Delicious ice cream from time to time and, when I want a snack, I'll grab a bag of Soy Crisps. I prefer the buffalo burger to its veggie cousin, but I've been known to enjoy a garden breakfast sausage. And I'll be the first to suggest an edamame appetizer.

But those are just the soy products I'm choosing to consume. As it turns out, soy protein isolate is in pretty much everything we eat: cereals, cereal bars, biscuits, cheeses, cakes, noodles, pastries, snacks, soups, sausage casings, as well as in the feed of beef and dairy cows, pigs and chickens.

Global soybean production increased ninefold between 1965 and 2005, from 30 million to 270 million tons, according to the Chicago Board of Trade. Soy oil production increased sevenfold over the same time period. And it's no accident: The American soy industry spends $80 million annually finding new markets for soy consumption. The industry is in the hands of just a few companies, namely Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge.

It turns out that many of the seemingly small, all-natural companies that I've grown to recognize are owned by massive food production conglomerates. According to a study by Michigan State University of the organic industry ownership structure, Westsoy, a soymilk brand, was purchased by Hain-Celestial in October 1997, which was in turn bought by Heinz in September 1999. Since August 2003, Hain-Celestial has had a strategic alliance with Cargill. Similarly, Boca Foods, of Boca Burger fame, has been owned by Kraft since February 2000.

Of course, this is not to say that all of the food companies at the local health food store have a Coca-Cola parent company lurking behind. Tofurky, for instance, is family-owned. Although modern processed soy is cheaper, they continue to use organic tofu in their products-including meatless hotdogs, sausages, deli slices and "Tofurky Jurky."

According to Kaayla T. Daniel, author of The Whole Soy Story (NewTrends Publishing, Inc.), soy was originally used as a nitrogen fixer, not as a food. During the Chou Dynasty, the Chinese developed fermentation techniques to make tempeh, miso, soy sauce and, later, bean curd. But for most of history, soy protein was a waste product, and mainly used in the U.S. as a sealant on cardboard. 

Heart Healthy?

In a letter sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year, the pro-raw milk Weston A. Price Foundation petitioned against soy's designation as "heart healthy," a label the FDA granted the product in 1999. Food additives, not in common use prior to 1958, are required to gain Generally Recognized as Safe status by the FDA. Soy protein only passed this litmus test because it was recognized as safe as an industrial cardboard binder, not as a food. The presence of carcinogens like lysinoalanine and nitrites meant that soy protein isolate wouldn't earn safety status as anything but a sealant. But the "heart healthy" designation went through anyway, and American consumption of soy products increased from .78 grams per day in 1999 to 2.23 grams per day in 2004. U.S. soy production increased 46% between 1993 and 2002. In 2000, 72 million acres of American farmland were dedicated to soy production-equal to the amount of natural pine forests the U.S. had in 1953. Even more startling is the rapid increase in production in Latin America. During the same time period, production in Brazil went up 85% and in Argentina 172%. But it wasn't that Latin Americans started eating more tofu. Global demand for soy as a feedstock has driven the massive expansion, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. Once the infrastructure for production was in place, the work to find other uses for soy expanded.

And the ecological impacts of soy production abroad are massive. In Paraguay, large corporations like ADM and Cargill evict rural workers and indigenous people from their land to expand the soy monoculture. Brazil's cerrado habitat, where most of the soy plantations are, has the greatest biodiversity in the world-130,000 species of plants and animals, including 90,000 insects, 40,000 fungi, 550 birds and 150 mammals. Blairo Maggi, the governor of Mato Grosso, one state in the region, owns Maggi Group, the largest private soy producer in the world. He's called "Rei de Soja," or "Soy King." In 2003, his first year as governor, the deforestation rate doubled.

But infrastructure in the interior of Brazil is slow, and roads are often flooded and closed for months at a time. Part of the lobby behind the Integration of Regional Infrastructure of South America's (IIRSA) 335-project initiative is to build a 2,600-mile-long water highway to connect one end of South America to the other, essentially creating a massive shipping route from soy plantations to the port at Belém.

Where soy comes from and how it is produced are major environmental and social concerns. And as the letter from the Weston A. Price Foundation suggests, even soy's once-vaulted health benefits are in question. Until there are more definitive answers, conscious consumers will need to weigh the ecological consequences of soy against the benefits of a really tasty veggie dog.

Michigan State University study of organic industry ownership structure
Author Kaayla T. Daniel
Weston A. Price Foundation

ERIN BARNES is an assistant editor at Men's Journal and a freelance environmental writer.

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