© Kat Morgenstern December 2003, all rights reserved.
Hailed as a vegetarian alternative to meat, soybeans have rapidly climbed to the top of the ladder of industrially produced crops. Today they are no longer just some exotic bean that offers a healthy alternative to people who prefer soymilk to cow's or tofu to hamburgers. Soy derivatives, like corn-derived products, are versatile substances that have managed to infiltrate the entire food industry. From baby food to pharmaceuticals and vitamin pills - soy insidiously creeps onto our shelves and we have no idea from where it is derived. Read the label of just about any product found on an ordinary supermarket shelf and you will see that soy is everywhere these days. And therein lies the problem. But ironically it is not the vegetarian movement that fuels the current soy boom, but the meat industry. Soy is the primary crop used to manufacture animal feed and with meat consumption having soared to dizzying heights during the last 50 years, more and more land is continuously turned over to soy to satisfy the rising demand for cattle feed.
Until recently soy figured high in the list of 'most sprayed crops'. This not only means that consumers, who perceive it as a 'health food' are inadvertantly subjected to the residues of intensive agrochemical treatments, but it also spells large scale agro-chemical pollution and soil depletion where it is cultivated.
Naturally, recent research in bioengineering has focused on the most commonly utilised and versatile crops, since these are the most profitable. Soybean ranks high on the list of research species and gene manipulated soybean varieties were among the first crops to be cultivated commercially on a large scale. Today more than half of all soy produced in the US is gene-manipulated and their derivatives can be commonly found in numerous products. Since there is no law that requires the food industry to specifically label any products containing gene-manipulated ingredients, the consumer is left completely in the dark. The fact that the US agricultural department has developed joint patents with some seed giants on certain gene manipulated crops might have something to do with the FDA's reluctance to enforce a clear labeling policy. So much for consumer protection or freedom of information.
One of the most significant developments in the gentic alteration of soy has resulted in a variety that is less fussy about climatic conditions and more resistant to pests. This variety is targeted as a new cash crop for farmers in tropical countries. The proclaimed benefits are an end to hunger but the reality is an end to farmer's freedom and long term dependency on the seed giants and their agrichemical allies. GM crops are subject to stringent patent laws which are vehemently enforced. Monsanto and others are claiming huge amounts of royalties on what they claim are illegally saved and propagated seeds - even if the altered genetic traits are due to pollen pollution rather than 'theft' as in the well publicised case of the Canadian farmer who found himself batteling against the corporate seed mafia.
To add to the already complex demise, there is now another environmental scandal attached to the incessant progress of soybean cultivation and it spells rainforest destruction. Soybeans are the latest cash crop craze among Brazilian farmers. Thousands of acres of rainforest are daily turned to dust, as they have to make way for the advance of the soybean, most of which is exported to industrialized countries for the production of cattle feed. Vast stretches of land at the frontiere to what was previously a pristine rainforest wilderness are newly under cultivation. Nobody knows how this total change of land use will affect the surrounding rainforest ecology, let alone the people who live there. For the moment government and farmers are only interested in the money and that promises to be good. Brazil is now only second to the US in soybean production and the profit margin is big.
Brazil persues a policy of resettlement aimed at the poorest of the poor, former shanti town dwellers from urban environments who know nothing about farming and even less about rainforest ecology. These are the people who are settling at the frontiere of the rainforest wilderness with the task of 'developing' this vast 'untapped' wilderness. Favourable loans and land gifts provide the lure to giving up the miserable lives of poverty they had before. But will their future look any brighter? Rainforest land that has been turned over to cultivation rapidly degrades and turns to desert. If cash crop prices sink farmers can not sustain their families on the little profits they reap from their harvests. More forest has to be cleared for cultivation to continue. The forest is disappearing at an even greater speed than ever before. Along with it the habitat of countless species of animals and plants is lost forever, not to mention the bleak futures of the indigenous tribes who call the rainforest their home - nobody much cares what will happen to them either.
It is sad that so called 'development' and 'progress' always seems to bear the very seeds of destruction. Perhaps it is time to ethically re-examine the very concept of what we consider 'successful development'. 'Development that by its nature is exploitive and destructive is based on greed and brings disaster and devastation in the long run. The success of any development project should be measured against the beneficial and sustainable effects for all those concerned, plants, animals and people alike, and not just be counted in terms of monetary benefits for those poised to reap the profits of their greed.
It is easy to point the finger at poor third world farmers who may have little concept of conservation issues, or at governments that encourage this kind of destruction. Poverty is a major root cause of environmental degradation. Lack of education and lack of choice it what drives people to destroy their environment, and the false promise that cash crops can offer a way out of that poverty. In practice we all know that it does not, but the myth is continuously perpetuated. Consumers rarely stop and think about it, they support it unwittingly on a daily basis. Chocolate, sugar, coffee, tea and now soy beans are among the crops that are predominantly grown in third world countries. They are traded at rock bottom prices, resulting in pitiful wages for the workers who are thus kept in their poverty trap forever. Its a form of modern slavery, though we call it 'free market economy' and it is conveniently far removed from our own doorsteps. We don't see the misery of the farm workers in some third world country, we are just happy that we can have coffee, tea and sugar available in endless quanities for just a few cents or dollars a pound.
If we truly want to do something about environmental destruction, whether it is the rainforest of Brazil or our own rural countryside, we must opt for responsible consumer choices. They may not always come cheap, but it is the only power we as consumers can exercise. Don't support the corporate giants, support your local organic farmer instead, or grow your own organic food (while it is still legal to do so). Support the fair trade networks which trade with farmers co-ops for cash crops such as coffee, tea and chocolate, and ensures that workers get a reasonable wage for their labour. Many of the co-ops supported by the Fair Trade networks grow their crops organically, the benefit is three-fold: the destruction to the earth is limited, workers get a fair wage and you get a healthier and better product.
For more info on these issues, especially with regard to coffee, sugar and chocoloate check out the 'stimulants' section in the Ethnobotany part of the site or click here
Fair trade links:
Environmental Impact of Soybean production
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