Is eating soya causing damage to the planet?
The Observer, 21 June 2009
*Growing soybeans has serious eco consequences - but they're not what you may think. Time to spill the beans, says Lucy Siegle
A number of upset vegetarians and vegans have been in touch to say they've been accused by acquaintances of causing planetary damage through their tofu and soya-milk consumption, given that soya production has become synonymous with deforestation.
The first thing I should do is to explain that although Europe imports 39m tonnes of soya a year (imagine it contained in 15 miles' worth of lorries bumper to bumper), 90% is destined for animal feed. It's beef rather than veggie burgers that ate all the soybean. Secondly, at least tofu (soybean curd) allows you to source dietary protein directly from a vegetarian food. By contrast it takes 8-16lb of soybeans to produce 1lb of beef, which is spectacularly inefficient. Hardly a snappy riposte, but it should do the job.
This is a pyrrhic victory, because we're all increasingly dependent on the global soya crop. There's even pressure to expand soya production into the bioenergy sector. Globally, over the past two decades 300m hectares of tropical forests have been felled thanks to the soya model. Meanwhile, in Brazil alone, soya cultivation occupies 20.5m ha (in 1940 just 704ha). How much more can the planet sustain?
Precisely the question the Round Table on Responsible Soya Association (responsiblesoy.org) is attempting to answer. This is where transnational growers, producers and traders such as Unilever, Monsanto and Carrefour meet to set out conditions for soya expansion that won't wreak havoc on ecosystems, biodiversity or land rights. How is this progressing? Well, judging by the letter of no confidence that has greeted the round table's recent programme - which included GM soya as part of the sustainable solution (toxicsoy.org) and was signed by major environmental groups including the UK Soil Association - not too well. This is not farming as the storybooks tell it. Power is channelled into the arms of soya kings (the new oil barons) and transnational agribusiness. These are vast monocultures with just a few workers per 1,000ha to apply sprays to a crop that kills biodiversity and contributes to soil erosion.
The one thing you can take responsibility for is your own soya consumption. The US Cornicopia Institute recently published Behind the Bean, a not very cheery look at the soya protein industry, but one with a useful scorecard for products (cornucopia.org). It found that "natural" soya products are often processed using hexane, a neurotoxin petrochemical solvent. So it pays to go for organic soya. Next, discover where manufacturers source their soya. You're looking for GM-free that is not extracted from rainforest regions and grown as part of a crop-rotation system (provamel.co.uk products give these assurances). Much of the soya crop is wasted, as oil is extracted from the bean for export and the husk discarded. So we should also ask manufacturers: do you take the whole bean and nothing but the bean?