As vegans, it’s easy to become frustrated or bored by hearing the same silly counter-arguments every day- “What about plants?”…“Meat developed our brains”…“heart disease is sexy.” So when someone told me I was doing environmental damage by eating soy products, I immediately perked up.
This argument I had not yet heard, but in the space of 24 hours two different people accused me of the same hypocrisy.
Soybean production has risen significantly in the last few years: production in Argentina rose 216 percent since 1995; China doubled its soy imports in 2003 after entering the World Trade Organization and relaxing trade restrictions; world demand is likely to increase 60 percent by 2025. This production destroys millions of hectares of rain forest, undermines local farmers, and displaces indigenous populations.
So, the argument goes, vegans eating soy products are advertising an eco-friendly diet with a food staple that is raping the natural world.
It is true that the increase in the production of soy crops–like an increase in the production of any crop–is decimating land, destroying habitats, making babies cry, etc. The wrinkle to this seemingly important criticism is in why production is increasing. Ninety-eight percent of soybeans produced in the US are not to accommodate the growing vegetarian population, but for animal feed, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group.
So yes, technically we are buying a crop that is linked to deforestation. But we are not supporting deforestation because the increased production is largely for animal products. Rest assured that it is not Boca burgers, but the beef industry, that is causing soy to harm the environment.
Does that mean we should eat soy products guilt free? Not necessarily. Determining whether soy is a health boon or a health bane is a debate that has been quietly fought for years, like Charlie Wilson’s war. Regardless of soy’s effects on its own, it’s similar to corn in ubiquity as an ingredient in cheap, highly processed, and probably unhealthy food.
Farming in general is often hazardous to the environment, and as such we should attempt to buy in-season & locally grown produce, and support sustainable farming practices over the unscrupulous destruction often carried out by big agribusiness. But this applies to all of our food choices.
Genetic modification, like Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ strain, was highlighted in the film Food Inc. for the Orwellian implications of patenting plants, which causes farmers to live in fear that they would be sued if the corporation’s new strain ended up, even accidentally, growing in their fields.
The operative question here though, is whether contributing to the sustainable exception, rather than the harmful rule, is ethical. By supporting the sliver of the soybean industry that is being used to power people, rather than feed farmed animals, we are encouraging responsible farming, rather than global overproduction.