Yowza. A few weeks back, in response to a question from a reader named Cassandra about the relative merits of soy milk, I asked your opinion on the dividing line between health and environmental concerns. Cassandra wanted to know if she could continue eating soy, which she considered an environmentally sound choice, without increasing her risk of breast cancer.

The health/environment line is always fuzzy to me, but entering the nutrition and cancer debates seemed like a reach. That letter made me wonder: What, exactly, are the boundaries of my columnal mandate? And so I asked you, dear readers, for your input.

In an average week, I get about 30 letters from curious readers — but the week after the soy column, more than 100 letters rained down into my basement. As of this writing, 160 of you have graced me with your thoughtful thoughts. Scientific analysis has revealed a strangely clean split in reader opinion. Today I will review your responses; in my next column I will provide real information related to the original soy question, but, to spill the beans, I am not going to answer the question itself. Gasp.

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A cornucopia of soy treats.

Photo: United Soybean Board/Soybean Checkoff.

So, to recap: Cassandra’s specific question concerned the potential carcinogenic effects of soy gluttony, which prompted my own query about whether I should research and report on nutritional, medical, and health concerns. Broadly speaking, there appears to be a reader consensus of “we are the environment, the environment is us,” and “personal health concerns motivate environmentalism.” But of answers containing clear opinions on the issue of my mandate, only half thought I should give health advice, while half wanted me to stick to pure environmental issues.

I’ve made a table so we can see the quantitative breakdown:

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Opinion Responses
Con: I’d rather talk to my doctor 23
Con: You’ll be spread too thin 39
Total Con 62
Pro: Yes, all roads lead to the environment 52
Pro: Answer the question, you lazy bum 7
Total Pro 59
General comments and 500-word+ answers 39
Total letters on the matter (pretty much) 160

Isn’t that amazing? Putting aside the chatty letters, the opinionated letters break down about evenly into the two camps.

The opinion divide is typified by these two excerpts:

Laura-Marie wrote:

If someone were asking you how often to exercise or whether the Atkins diet were safe, that would be a whole other can of worms. But something like the health issues of soy foods is of extreme interest to your readership (at least to me) because we environmentalists do care about cows. It’s cow-related, environment-related.

Joanne wrote:

Unless there’s a clear environmental connection to a health question, don’t answer it. There are plenty of health columnists, only one Umbra.

Anne also impressed me with her analysis:

The compounding of roles may occur because of this syllogism:

1) Because soy is less environmentally harmful than milk
2) Umbra must favor soy over cow’s milk

Therefore: It is Umbra’s responsibility to account for the health effects of soy.

But it is more likely to happen because of this one:

1) Umbra is a source I trust
2) Umbra knows everything about plants

Therefore: I can ask Umbra about soy.

It was not until you raised the question that I realized I got (and expected) my information on soy from my doctor, not a commentator on healthful environmental practices.

It was while reading these and other letters that my own opinion was clarified. Nutritional questions are better left to health professionals, or at least health dilettantes, or at the very least better-paid environmental columnists. I can’t wrap my mind around nutrition, honestly. Dietary recommendations are changeable, moody, and bothersome to me. Hence: I will not be opining in this space about health issues that are better left to doctors and nutritionists. For instance, you won’t catch me weighing in on the health consequences of eating meat.

However, let’s face it, I will continue to straddle the health/environment boundary for my (our) manipulative purpose of educating us all into better environmental stewardship. In practice, I’ve already been doing this: An astute few letter writers noticed my strange ability to advise on drinking from plastic bottles while balking at soy milk (though it turns out that I glossed over some plastic-bottle nuances and will need to revisit the issue in forthcoming columns; see, this stuff is tricky!).

So, the line is in the sand, and the sands are shifting. Stay tuned for information about the environmental impacts of soy production.

I thank you for your input.


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