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The War on Soy: Why the 'Miracle Food' May Be a Health Risk and Environmental Nightmare

Vegetarians aren't the only ones who should be concerned; there's soy in just about everything you eat these days -- including hamburgers, mac 'n cheese and salad dressing.

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While the soy industry has profited from the widespread adoption of its products here in the United States, other developed countries have taken a more precautionary approach and not allowed soy to become as pervasive in their food supplies in an effort to protect the health of their citizens, says O'Brien. But it's not just people who are at risk. The deleterious effects of soy can start with the seed.

Goodbye Rainforests, Hello Roundup

Glenn Beck recently chastised Al Gore about his meat eating, telling him that if he really cared about the planet he should put down his burger and pick up some Tofurkey. But unfortunately, it's not that simple. Increasing evidence is showing that soy production is also catastrophic for the environment. Just like a beef burger, a soy-based veggie patty may also be leading to deforestation, water depletion, and pesticide pollution. But it's also important to note that the vast majority of soy produced globally isn't used for tofu and veggie sausage -- it's actually used to fatten livestock and create biofuels (so, yeah, you may still want to put down the burger).

"Soy is a really sexy crop; it's fantastic. It's nitrogen fixing, it's full of protein; it's very rich and flexible," Raj Patel said in an interview with New America Media. "The tragedy is that the way we grow it today has turned a blessing into a curse because the way that soy agriculture works is monocultural, which means it takes over large parts of land. In Brazil, that means the Cerrado and the rainforest in the Amazon, and they are draining the water that is beneath that land. There are even some soy and biofuel plantations in Brazil where the International Labor Organization says there are 40,000 slaves working today. Slaves! In Brazil, producing biofuels and soy."

Brazil is one of the leading soy producers in the world, second only to the U.S. and poised to quickly move to the top spot. And overall, the growth of the world market is huge, with global production doubling over the past 20 years and 210 million tons produced a year.

But it has also led to problems. Countries across Latin America, including Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, are experiencing environmental problems similar to Brazil's. Rainforests are cleared, carbon emissions increase, indigenous and small farmers are displaced, aquifers are sucked dry, roads are built through sensitive ecosystems, and heavy pesticide use threatens waterways, soils and the health of locals. And as with all industrial monocultural farming, the rich (Monsanto, Cargill, and Bunge) get richer and the poor get poorer.

"The soy 'gold rush' has attracted fierce competition for land, leading to violence and murder," Marianne Betterly summarized in Mariri Magazine. "Hundreds of acres of rainforest are being cleared everyday, often by slave 'debt' laborers, to make room for more soy plantations."

So, we may get our cheap burgers and a deluge of soy-infused foods, but at great cost.

Adding to all these environmental problems with soy is the fact that much of the world's soy (and 85 percent of the U.S crop) is genetically engineered. Since the early '90s farmers in the United States (and now across the world) have been using Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy that is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which is liberally sprayed on the crop to kill weeds.

Much of the promise of GE crops was that they'd lead to the use of less pesticides and herbicides, which threaten both human and environmental health. But that hasn't actually panned out. "Because herbicide-tolerant crops are designed to withstand application of weed killers, farmers can apply large amounts of pesticides without fear of harming their crops. The U.S. has seen more than a 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate, or Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, on major crops from 1994 to 2005," Co-Op America reported.

 
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