I’m beginning to notice a recurring theme in the discussion thread of my last two posts. It appears that some readers are under the impression that plant-based diets are less environmentally-friendly because of the perceived vegetarian/vegan reliance on soy products.
There seems to be a growing movement, promoted by environmentalists themselves, that is against vegan diets, for reasons of environmental sustainability. This trend is encouraged by the strange idea being promoted that vast quantities of soy are required to produce foods for the vegetarian population. In other words, the impression is being created that it is tofu, soy milk and fake meats that are destroying the planet, not animal foods. This scenario paints vegans as being perpetrators of the massive environmental devastation that is, indeed, occurring worldwide as a result of the growing demand for soy.
When examined just a little more closely, it becomes clear that this theory is quite ludicrous. There is no way that the current population of vegetarians and vegans could possibly create such demand for soy. In fact, the disturbing reality that is being revealed about the ecological destruction caused by commercial soy sounds more like something one would associate with… well… the animal industry. The emergence of vast monocultures that are destroying huge tracts of Amazon forest, catastrophic depletion of water and other resources, colossal pesticide usage, enormous reliance on genetic engineering… It sounds like yet another illustration of the callous disregard for the future of our planet for which the animal industry has become infamous.
Feeding cattle and other livestock is the number one use of soy worldwide, and it outweighs the other uses of soy by a long shot.
According to www.soyatech.com:
“About 85 percent of the world’s soybean crop is processed into meal and vegetable oil, and virtually all of that meal is used in animal feed. Some two percent of the soybean meal is further processed into soy flours and proteins for food use… Approximately six percent of soybeans are used directly as human food, mostly in Asia.”
Of the small percentage of soy being used to feed people, don’t be fooled into believing that the majority of it is used to make meat or milk substitutes to feed vegans and vegetarians. As pointed out by Mary Vance, in The Dark Side of Soy,
“Soy is everywhere in our food supply, as the star in cereals and health-promoting foods and hidden in processed foods. Even if you read every label and avoid cardboard boxes, you are likely to find soy in your supplements and vitamins (look out for vitamin E derived from soy oil), in foods such as canned tuna, soups, sauces, breads, meats (injected under poultry skin), and chocolate, and in pet food and body-care products.”
According to Vance, the reason for the ubiquitous presence of soy is simple:
“These days the industry has discovered ways to use every part of the bean for profit. Soy oil has become the base for most vegetable oils; soy lecithin, the waste product left over after the soybean is processed, is used as an emulsifier; soy flour appears in baked and packaged goods; different forms of processed soy protein are added to everything from animal feed to muscle-building protein powders.”
Soy is grown in vast monocultures, causing massive environmental degradation, wasting huge quantities of water, and destroying wild lands.
From a 2009 article, More Soy, Less Forest – and No Water:
“According to the National Directorate of Forests, Argentina is experiencing the most intense deforestation in its history due to the replacement of forests with soy plantations, and Córdoba is the province where the most devastating environmental damage has occurred.
“Over the past decade, as the output of soy rose steadily, the province lost an average of three percent of its native forests annually. Of the 10 million hectares of forests found in Córdoba a century ago, only 12 percent are left.
“The worst destruction has been seen in the hills and mountains in the region, where only two percent of the native forest cover has survived.”
Naturally, as the forest cover is destroyed in these areas, the rain water, once absorbed by the forested mountains and released throughout the year, now simply pours down the sides of the mountains.
“In the mountainous region known as the Sierras Chicas, where several large towns and small cities are located, water shortages have led to water cuts in the last few months. The La Quebrada dam, which supplies the entire area, is at present only able to meet half of the current level of demand.”
“But Córdoba, Salta and Santiago del Estero are just three of the seven Argentine provinces where the destruction of native forests ‘is most intense’, says a report by the National Directorate of Forests, which warns that around 200,000 hectares of forests are being irrevocably lost every year.”
As if this wasn’t bad enough, soy is also one of the crops most commonly produced using genetic modification, which is of serious concern in regards to both health and environmental issues.
According to Grist.org:
“As of 2004, 85 percent of the U.S. soy crop was genetically modified, accounting for some 63.6 million acres of soybeans. Statistics for 2003 indicate that at least 55 percent of soy worldwide is now genetically modified.”
According to another source, “In 1997, about 8% of all soybeans cultivated for the commercial market in the United States were genetically modified. In 2006, the figure was 89%”
Grist.org goes on to state: “Some would like us to believe that … ‘herbicide-tolerant’ soy has led to less need for the herbicide. This is not the case. The use of Roundup and other pesticides and herbicides on genetically modified crops in the U.S. from 2001 through 2003 increased by tens of millions of pounds compared to non-GM conventional agriculture.”
This is bad enough on an environmental level, but what about the health effects of eating foods that are contaminated with genetically modified organisms? For those who are concerned about consuming genetically engineered foods, it would be worth giving some thought to the fact that when these GM soybeans are fed to animals, they end up being eaten by humans, through the animals’ flesh, eggs and milk. What’s even worse, is that once the beans are eaten by animals, there is no way to test for the presence of the GMOs.
According to www.gmo-compass.org:
“Despite methods that are becoming more and more sensitive, tests have not yet been able to establish a difference in the meat, milk, or eggs of animals depending on the type of feed they are fed. It is impossible to tell if an animal was fed GM soy just by looking at the resulting meat, dairy, or egg products.”
Genetic engineering is a common concern for those who are considering giving up animal products in favor of vegetarian options. With the prevalent misconception that vegetarian diets are necessarily high in soy products, many concerned consumers question whether a vegetarian diet leaves the individual more exposed to genetically engineered ingredients. But companies that make products aimed at consumers who are concerned about food issues (like vegans and vegetarians) tend to market their products accordingly. Vegetarian and vegan products are frequently labeled as being produced using non-GMO soybeans. For that reason, it is far easier to avoid GM soy in products such as soy milk, tofu, and meat analogs, than it is to avoid GM soy in the flesh, eggs or milk of an animal.
As a final point, for those who are under the impression that the answer is to avoid beef, and switch instead to poultry products, consider this from the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association:
“Over half of the soybeans processed for livestock feed are fed to poultry, about one-quarter is fed to swine, and the rest is used for beef cattle, dairy cattle and petfood.”
Once again, examined from yet another angle, vegan options win out as being more environmentally sustainable. One way or another, the information about the environmental impacts of animal ‘agriculture’ will have to become known. The world stands at a turning point, where we simply can not go on as if our old ways can continue to sustain us. As environmentalist John Grant states in The Green Marketing Manifesto, “our lifestyles need to change beyond recognition.” (Emphasis in original).
The vegan ideal is so clearly an evolution from where we are today. There is no way that its benefits can be reasonably refuted from any angle, because vegan represents a step forward, a step into a way of living that is more suited to the nature of people who care about the suffering of others, and who can empathize with another’s pain.
For those of us who want to secure a future for our species, and perhaps for the planet itself, it is time that we joined together and put our efforts behind the changes that will make the difference we need. Vegan stands at the forefront of this movement for change.
If we want to move forward into a new society, a culture of sustainability that leaves behind the destruction that humanity has wrought on the planet, we must be willing to change ourselves, our ways of thinking, and the ways in which we live, including our eating habits.
This quantum leap may seem unlikely from the perspective we hold today, but it is within this very change that our hope for the future lies. There is nothing hopeful about looking ahead to a future where we are not vastly different from whom we are today. The evolution of our species hangs in the balance. If we are to have a future, the people who inhabit it will not be addicted to the products of exploitation, suffering and environmental destruction. They will not source their food from feedlots, factory farms or slaughterhouses. The people of this future will be kind, compassionate, gentle and just. And yes, however controversial it may be to say so, there is no doubt in my mind that the people of the future will be vegan.
Photographer: Fernando Weberich