The state of soy: The fraught ethics of a troublesome bean

by Beacon Staff • April 15, 2009

Emerson students, if summed up in one word, are best described as "alternative." We pursue alternative careers, engage in alternatives to mainstream culture and lead alternate lifestyles. For vegetarians and vegans, this means seeking alternatives to meat and dairy products. The most popular salve for the low-protein blues is a sly legume: the soybean. But, unknowingly or not, meat-eaters get their fair share of soy, too. And while many are aware of the environmentally damaging effects of the meat industry, fewer are aware of the environmental and social destruction wrought by soy industry.

Soy, often in the form of vegetable oil, is found in nearly three-quarters of supermarket foodstuffs and in most fast foods, according to Raj Patel of the University of California, Berkeley. Still, 80 percent of all soy goes to livestock feed that ends up in meat products. The meat industry and the soy industry are like David Hasselhoff and the German people-without each other, they would be nothing.

So who cares if soy is in everything? Why should it matter that my chocolate bar, the mayo on my sandwich and even my soda may harbor soy ingredients?

It matters because that soy may have been produced under conditions that oppressed an indigenous people and ravaged the environment from here to Brazil.

The United States is the world's largest soybean producer, followed closely by Brazil. American-based corporations, like Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland, have an intimate relationship with both governments. In 2004, the American Soybean Association received most of their $27 million budget from the federal government and has close connections with agribusiness, according to Patel. Cargill is the largest exporter of soybeans in both Brazil and the U.S.

In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, soy wags the governmental dog: the world's single largest soybean grower, Blairo Maggi, is governor. It's like electing the chief executive of an oil firm-Halliburton, for example-vice president. This melding of governmental and corporate interests has shot Mato Grosso's citizens in the face.

Maggi has allowed soy farmers, and ranchers pushed out of their land by soy companies, to destroy the Amazon to make room for crops and cattle. Greenpeace and other environmental organizations have decried these actions to no avail.

Less well-known is the destruction of the cerrado, the savanna next to the Amazon, which is home to almost as much biodiversity as the rain forest itself-as well as 9,600 of the indigenous Xavante people. Because Maggi has sponsored the building of dams to provide water for soy, he has destroyed the Xavante's vital fishing grounds, polluted their water supply and greatly encroached upon their land, according to Ellen Lutz, executive director of Cultural Survival, a non-profit human rights group.

Of course, soy-the-crop isn't to blame, even though its roots kill native underground plants. Instead of criticizing the bean, let's judge the people responsible for its misuse: American-based agribusinesses involved in the subjugation of the Xavante and the cerrado, Blairo Maggi and his Andreacute; Maggi Group and consumers, who have a responsibility to buy the right kind of soy.

So take a stand by hitting the agribusinesses where they'll feel it the most: in their giant wallets.

Buy foods made with non-genetically modified soy (a generally good idea for socially conscious shopping). Although not guaranteed to come from blameless companies, non-GMO soy has a much lesser chance of being the product of the mega-businesses that use engineering to maximize profits. (When the Brazilian state of Paranaacute; banned genetically modified soy in 2005, major soy exporters diverted their business to another state, effectively destroying the soy-heavy economy and pressuring the government into allowing GMOs.)

Amy's; Annie's Naturals; White Wave, which manufactures Silk soy milk; Nature's Path and Organic Valley are all excellent at monitoring the cultivation of their ingredients. And Trader Joe's addicts can breathe easy: all TJ-labeled foods are sourced from non-GMO ingredients, according to the company's Web site.

Of course, there's also the abstinence-only method: avoiding soy altogether. Buy nut- and rice-based milks instead of soy milk. Look for gluten-based faux-meats and soyless sunflower- or eggplant-based veggie burgers. Eat organic meat and dairy; organic farmers are required to feed their livestock only organic foods to be certified as such.

And, for soyness' sake, start reading the labels of foods you buy. Because unless you know every ingredient, where it is coming from and how it is grown, there's a very real possibility you've been eating out of Blairo Maggi's dirty, soy-stained hand.

iSarah Cadorette is a junior travel writing and social advocacy major and a contributor to /iThe Beacon.