We’ve heard it countless times: the accusation that anyone who consumes a plant-based diet is personally responsible for deforestation and, more specifically, the destruction of the rainforest. It is believed by many that because our diets are generally – although by no means exclusively – high in soy we are causing more environmental problems than if we ate meat. When individuals are so convinced we should be held accountable for what is happening to the rainforests, one might be forgiven for wondering if there is some truth in these statements.
WHAT IS SOY USED FOR?
The soybean is a species of legume native to Asia that is now successfully grown worldwide, primarily because it’s a cheap yet substantial source of protein, containing considerably more (per acre) than almost all other forms of agriculture. The bulk of the soybean crop is grown for livestock feed, with the oil extracted to leave behind the high-protein defatted and “toasted” soy meal for farm animals. Worldwide about 85% of the soybean crop is processed into these two goods, with a very small percentage (6%) consumed directly by humans and largely by those in Asia. While it is true that plant-based beverages and food are often soy-based, soy ingredients also appear in a huge variety of non-vegan processed foods (to add nutrition) as well as within other produce in the form of lecithin or vegetable oil.
Due to rapid growth in the consumption of dairy, eggs and meat – and a corresponding rise in demand for livestock feed – from the 1960s onward soy cultivation began to grow, with significant expansion taking place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Given the expanse of arable and fertile land, low labor costs, and access to water, the main area for growth has been in South America, and unfortunately it is the fragile ecosystems of the rainforest and savannah which are being exploited.
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS WITH DEFORESTATION AND SOY AGRICULTURE?
It is estimated that rainforest destruction is responsible for between 15 and 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and with on average 13 million hectares being cleared each year, there is an urgent need to end the deforestation of rainforests in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Deforestation, coupled with single crop farming, threatens the natural biodiversity; endangered species; as well as the livelihood of local people. The ecological balance that would normally exist in nature is disrupted, and when farmers resort to pesticides to protect their crops this further exacerbates the problem.
An increase in the use of pesticides causes soil erosion to take place at an accelerated pace which can block streams and cause both freshwater and groundwater contamination, all of which seriously impacts the health of people and wildlife. Moreover, single crop farming depletes the nutrients in soil faster than they can be replenished by natural fertilisers, necessitating large amounts of chemical fertiliser and water to be used.
In addition to the harm caused to both animals and the environment, the concentration of cultivation in the hands of a few organisations has pushed communities and small farmers off the land and encouraged exploitation of workers. Now there are four multinational corporations who dominate the world trade in soybeans: Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bunge Limited, Cargill, Incorporated and Louis Dreyfus Group; and as the system continues to be industrialised those who make the decisions are not the ones who have to live with the consequences.
AN ADDITIONAL PROBLEM: GM SOY
The problem extends beyond deforestation, however, due to the rise in biotechnology and genetically modified food. One of the first crops to be genetically modified were soybeans, with Monsanto introducing ‘Roundup Ready’ soybeans to the market that could resist their own herbicide ‘Roundup’. Now, Monsanto RR soybeans are used almost exclusively within South America, and as a GM crop (which can’t co-exist with a non-GM crop) they have destroyed everything else in the area. This results in further destruction to local biodiversity, as well as natural resources, bringing additional problems to the local communities.
Despite countless studies, to this day there is no scientific research which can categorically prove either the safety of GM food, or rule out the possibility that bioengineered food is causing death and illness. Consequently, there is great consumer and supplier reluctance to use GM produce in Europe and, as a result, to be legally imported into the European Union GM crops require extensive certification. In the United States, however, the labelling of GM food is forbidden and it is now estimated that 70% of food in stores contains GM elements.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
1. GO VEGAN: eliminating the consumption of dairy, eggs and meat from your diet will reduce the demand you place on the respective industries and therefore soy meal.
2. CONSUME IN MODERATION: follow the traditions of Asia, where soy-based food is most popular, and eat it in moderation.
3. OPT FOR NON-GM AND/OR ORGANIC: choose products which are non-GM and offer environmental and social safeguards or, if it isn’t possible to identify products as such, choose organic (as it eliminates the possibility of the product contacting GM ingredients).
4. BUY FROM ETHICAL SUPPLIERS: spend your money with ethical companies that treat animals; the environment; and workers with respect, avoiding multinational corporations.
Note: the four corporations listed above control the soybean industry worldwide and their ingredients are in an enormous number of brands.
5. GO LOCAL: buy locally and at markets, supporting local communities and farmers.