Umbra’s column on the environmental impact of soy vs. that of meat inspired readers of all stripes — OK, mostly the stripes that are anti-soy — to share their opinions. Here’s a sample of the deluge that hit our inbox, and there’s a whole lot more posted in Gristmill, our blog.
What a disappointment your defense of soy vs. meat is! You dismiss soy’s harmful effects in one subordinate clause: “Despite concerns about deforestation and genetic engineering … ” Last I heard, the No. 1 cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was soya plantations. Like other crops, soya burns out the land in just a few years.
The question itself is the problem: it needs reframing. Protein isn’t just a meat/soy/dairy issue. Consider ramon nut, a new (to us) food coming from the rainforests of Central America and southern Mexico. The Mayans lived on it. Ramon, or capomo, is 14 percent protein, a complete protein, yields comparable amounts of protein per hectare, and comes from a fruit. Yes, you have to save rainforest to harvest it!
Many thanks to Umbra for her column on the environmental costs of food production, but as usual, illuminating this subject in less than 1,000 words is nearly futile. For instance, vast soy plantations in Brazil have permanently altered many Amazonian ecosystems. Millions of acres of land in the arid West cannot be used to grow food, but they can be used to graze cattle. And then there is the very real question of dietary differences in people. Soy in its unfermented form is a known goitrogen — in other words, it suppresses thyroid function. Modern food inventions like soy milk are particularly damaging to the thyroid. Many people are also incapable of digesting dairy foods. Ours is not a society that likes to investigate these gray areas, but perhaps we need to stop putting these round issues into square boxes.
You’re neglecting to figure in the millions of dollars of damage that the planting of soybeans cause to individual watersheds through increased erosion, siltation, increased water volume, etc. I hate to say it, but those costs alone make beef more economical than soy (or corn). Pick another vegetable, please.
Scott D. Bilben
I don’t disagree with your conclusions, but — having been raised on a farm that included significant soybean production — let me add that several years of repeated soybeans badly damages the soil’s texture and friability, making it much more susceptible to erosion. And because soybeans produce more cash than other grains, many farmers are forced to over-plant soybeans without being able to worry about the long-term erosion it causes. All is not well with heavy soybean cultivation. I think this falls under the category: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
I have been a vegan for about 15 years now and I eat very little soy. It does not digest well and makes me feel bloated and ill. I also have concerns about it being an “antinutrient,” as it is the first thing to bring onto cleared rainforest land these days.
I believe it is important to remember that many vegetarians eat diets that completely exclude soy, and still get enough protein with quinoa, rice, beans, fresh vegetables, avocados, tahini, nuts, and other grains and legumes.
I enjoyed your recent article, but I’ve been reading about soy and there is research showing that unfermented soy is not a good or healthy food. It is hard in this society to avoid eating soy; it is cheap, and it is hidden in everything from yogurt to vitamins. Certainly, a lot of money is being made here — are we the test animals?
I found it a little odd that there was no mention of wild-protein consumption via hunting. I hunt whitetail deer for several reasons.
First, it requires much fewer kilocalories worldwide for me to drive my paid-for vehicle to the public woods, hunt and stalk and shoot a deer, drag it out without the use of any type of mechanization, load it, and haul it home, and do all the processing myself. The energy required of our planet to get the venison on my plate barely registers in comparison to the mega-machinery and energy involved in getting so many other types of foods.
Second, we all descend from people who for tens of thousands of years had to hunt and gather for their nutrition and lives. Then, 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, the earliest forms of agriculture began. I, for one, pay attention to where I come from.
Third, there are simply way too many deer in our environment at the moment. I would rather hunt and eat that red meat than hit one or pay for a pound of fatty beef raised in a factory farm or feedlot.
And, yes, venison does taste better than soy.
I was very disgusted that you did not take into account the suffering of the animals in factory farming. I would think someone working for Grist would be vegan and work to let people know about the cruelty involved in raising and killing animals for food. Please use your influence for better purpose.
I was a bit offended by the remark about baby sheep being cute as a reason not to eat meat. It’s not that they’re cute; it’s that they have feelings, minds, desires, and the will to live just as humans do. For me, eating meat-free is a moral imperative.
If you don’t think animals are sentient beings or have souls, try living with cats or dogs for a while. You will find they are not like a computer or an iPod. They have even been known to awaken the dormant soul and heal the damaged spirit.
How can you compare soy and meat without listing the different types of protein that each provides? More importantly, how could you not mention that phytic acid, present in all unfermented soy, blocks mineral absorption?
Umbra states at the end of the article, “There is some indication in these studies that sustainably raised, locally procured meat-based diets can hold their own, environmentally, against heavily processed, far-shipped veggie diets. So I prefer to believe that eating my local bacon is better than eating frozen veggie burgers, not just gastronomically but ecologically.”
This is an oft-used justification for eating meat, and this kind of argument obscures the other issue. From what you have said so far, the apparent true best result comes from buying veggies locally. In this part of your article, you are comparing apples and oranges.
The fact is, by buying meat raised locally, you are putting nearly the same market pressures on the beef industry that you would be by purchasing feedlot beef. Sure, you are increasing the demand for the more sustainably ranched meat, but it also supports the more general demand for meat, which does not consider how or where it is raised. This certainly diminishes a bit of the “buy local” benefits that folks talk about.
Maybe now it is time to compare buying local veggies to non-local veggies.
The only thing people have to remember when comparing the environmental impact of eating any plant product versus eating any animal product is remembering the organism’s trophic level in the food chain. Generally speaking, it takes 90 percent less energy to grow a pound of plant material than one pound of cattle (meat material). Any dummy should know that eating lower in the food chain is going to have less of an impact on the environment.