Soy has become quite fashionable as a “wonder food”. Praised for its nutritional values, soy has the highest protein content of any bean making it a favorite among vegans, animal defenders and even young hipsters who swear by their morning soy latte. For many, however, soy is an ethical and political choice. By switching to soy, we get to spare our bodies and the planet from the harmful effects of the meat and dairy industry, its extensive use of antibiotics and its heavy contribution to the ever-growing climate crisis.
The problem is, soy production is a veritable criminal enterprise. The impressive bean that so many of us love is grown by multinational corporations that poison soil and water with toxic agrochemicals. What’s more, the bean is a Monsanto genetically modified crop the full impacts of which are still unknown. Soy is also used extensively by livestock producers alongside genetically modified corn as a base for animal feed. On top of this toxic burden, the soy agribusiness industry expropriates Indigenous Peoples. Also it destroys forests. And, like the meat and dairy industry, it’s fueling the climate crisis.
Let’s take a closer look at these four interrelated reasons why we need to move away from soy, in its many forms.
Growing soy requires vast extensions of land. In fact, it requires so much land that soy monoculture a leading factor in the destruction of the world’s biodiversity. Soy farms now cover more than one million square kilometers of the world – the total combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The soy agriculture industry is having an especially devastating impact in Amazonia but also in the Cerrado and the Chaco. Almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million in Brazil alone, the world’s leading soy producer.
Compounding this rampant devastation, when forests are transformed into farmland, soil quality deteriorates, leading to increased pollution, increased flooding and increased sedimentation that can clog waterways. This can cause a significant decline in fish populations and other life. Agrochemical residues degrade soil even further, along with the local water table and natural processes such as pollination. Such loss of biodiversity is a key factor of climate change.
The expansion of soy is made possible through land grabbing and by provoking land conflicts. Indigenous Peoples are often the main victims of this expropriation and dispossession and are often forced into urban poverty as a result. Indigenous resistance, however, is brutally repressed.
In Brazil, the Kaiowá-Guarani peoples have denounced over three hundred assassinations. Indigenous peoples defending their land are being killed by private militias hired by large soy corporations like Raizen, Breyfuss, Bunge, Syngenta and the French-Swiss Louis Dreyfus Commodities. “The soy you consume is stained with Guarani Kaiowá blood,” said Valdelice Veron, the daughter of cacique killed by a soy producer in 2003.
One emblematic case was the brutal homicide of a young leader in the state of Mato Grosso in 2014. Marinalva Kaiowá was stabbed 35 times only two weeks after defending the demarcation of Guyraroká lands in a court ruling at the federal Supreme Court in Brasilia. Her killing is, unfortunately, no exception. It is emblematic of a larger massacre. The Kaiowá-Guarani have a homicide rate nearly 500 times higher than the Brazilian average, exceeding that of countries at war.
One in two assassinations of Indigenous peoples in Brazil is related to the expansion of soy. The state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the world’s largest producer of soy, concentrates nearly 55 % of indigenous homicides in Brazil. Historian Marcelo Zelic told a special parliamentary commission that the state accounted for 377 of the 687 recorded cases of Indigenous peoples killed between 2003 and 2014. In other words, the state at the heart of soy’s agribusiness has a rate of Indigenous homicides three times higher than all other Brazilian states together.
Soy expansion is also forcing Indigenous peoples into smaller territories. There are 24 Indigenous territories in Mato Grosso do Sul, but lands for non-Indigenous peoples is 4 inhabitants per sq kilometers, 96 per sq/km for Terena Indians, and 34 per sq/km for the Guarani-Kaiowá.
The expansion of soy on Indigenous territories is feeding a devastating death toll and governments are often accomplice. In Brazil, Congress pleased the soy sector with a new bill (PEC 215) facilitating the redefinition of previously demarcated Indigenous territories into farmland. The law, accused of being unconstitutional, was designed to pursue an even more aggressive expropriation of Indigenous lands in Amazonia.
Make no mistake. Soy is a massive commercial enterprise that is controlled by a few major landowners and corporations that don’t have our best interests at heart. In Brazil, many farms average 1,000 ha and some reach 50,000 ha (for the soccer aficionados out there, that is about 70,000 soccer fields). In Argentina, the world’s third producer after the USA, soy has replaced small farming, provoking rural migration to the cities and the disappearance of small towns in the Chaco region.
There are no labor benefits either. Since land is concentrated into the hands of few, mechanization drastically reduces farm jobs. When there is labor, it is prone to abuse. For instance, Greenpeace has documented workers being duped into coming to ranches where their papers are taken away and they are forced to work in soy farms.
Most soybeans are genetically modified to tolerate agrochemical farming, which means they are not only nutritionally inferior but also contain toxic chemicals. While there is little scientific data available on the physiological impacts of GMOs on the human body, GMO soy production is dependent on the heavy use of chemicals that poison our bodies and the environment. A study in Brazil’s Mato Grosso, for example, tested 62 samples of breast milk and found traces of one or more toxic agrochemicals in each and every sample. Not surprisingly, a documentary investigating the impacts of growing soy in South America to feed factory farms in Europe is called Killing Fields.
Monsanto crops have poisoned Argentina. The country’s entire soy crop is genetically modified which has skyrocketed the need for agrochemicals. Today, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what farmers in the U.S. rely on. The arrival of Monsanto crops brought birth defects and high rates of cancer among the rural population. But it doesn’t end there. Argentina exports most of its soy to Europe. If you live in Europe, chances are your morning soy latte and that tasty slice of in-house tofu cheesecake you had at lunch is made with Monsanto crops farmed in Argentina.
It’s almost impossible to avoid GM soy these days. Since it was first introduced in 1996, GM soy now dominates the industry comprising some 90% of all soy production. Countries like Argentina and the United States rely almost entirely on GM soy. More than a few local organic soybean businesses have collapsed because their soybeans were allegedly accidentally contaminated with patented strains of GM soy. Some claim that just 0.1% of world production is certified organic soy.
Soy is everywhere and we often eat it without our knowledge or consent. The overwhelming majority of the global soy production (80%) goes to feed animals, especially chickens and pigs, which means we are eating it too. The same goes for dairy products, since soy is also used in cattle feed. Soy is also the second most consumed oil in the world (after palm oil). If you check the labels in your kitchen cupboards you’re bound to find it.
It’s laudable to boycott the global cattle industry for its many harms to the earth, but we cannot reject one contaminating industry to endorse another. That is, unless our goal is to perpetrate a fraud at the expense of Indigenous Peoples, ecosystems and our own bodies.
If that’s not the sort of thing you can stomach we have no choice but to go conflict free. It’s not easy; but, then, nothing good in life ever is.
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