Like bikes, Birkenstocks, and buying local, soy products are a standard part of today’s stereotypical green lifestyle. But as many in the sustainable food world already know, we should proceed with caution when it comes to consuming processed soy products, as some are much more complicated than they seem.
To start with, it is much harder to find an organic soybean than, say, an organic carrot – only 0.2 percent of the soybean acreage in the U.S. is used to grow organic beans (compared with 13 percent of the carrot acreage). After corn, soy is the second-most-planted field crop in the U.S., and 92 percent of U.S. soybeans are genetically engineered to either withstand large amounts of pesticide or to produce it themselves.
“If you’re buying a non-organic soy product, I can pretty confidently say that [it] will have been grown on a large-scale monoculture farm,” said Charlotte Vallaeys of the Cornucopia Institute, which put out a report [PDF] in 2009 on the social, environmental, and health impacts of soy. “This is something people need to think about when they talk about soy as a good alternative protein source — that soy has to be grown somewhere; something has to fertilize the soil.”
Many vegetarians turn to soy as a meat substitute, but the soy industry is inextricably linked to meat. Some 80 percent of the conventional soybeans grown in this country end up on factory farms as livestock feed. And while meat-based diets have about twice the environmental impact of soy-based diets, a non-soy veggie diet beats them both.
So unless eaters choose exclusively organic soy, it’s not at all clear that what they’re eating it sustainable — or healthful.
The Cornucopia Institute’s soybean study reported that 37 percent of Americans seek out soy products for health reasons. While organic, whole soy products like milk and tofu offer a rich source of protein, the soy derivatives used in a multitude of products marketed as health foods — like energy bars and veggie Burgers — may carry their own negative health implications.
Minh Tsai, owner of an organic soybean company called the Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, Calif., explains that tofu and other soy products first took off in the Western world in the ‘60s and ‘70s, branded from the beginning as “fringe or hippie food.” As vegetarian diets grew in popularity — concurrent with the commercialization of organic farming — Big Food found ways to co-opt and mass-market soy, using a synthetic solvent called hexane to extract soy protein isolates from the bean. These isolates give veggie burgers and energy bars a cheap dose of protein.
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