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Sustain / Food Facts

Soya the ubiquitious bean: A look at the social and environmental aspects of soya production (1999)

Soya beansReport Summary

Soya is in hundreds of foods that we eat. Soya and soya-derived products form the basis of many vegetarian and vegan diets and are also used in 60 per cent of processed foods in the mainstream UK food industry.

Soya flour is used in bread, soy oil is in margarine, soybean concentrate is used to bind foods together and boost protein content, and soya lecithin, the emulsifier E322, is one of the most widely used food additives.

Soya's main use in the UK is as feed for livestock. After the oil has been extracted the resulting high-protein meal is widely used in animal feed, forming an essential fuel for intensively reared cattle, pigs and poultry.

Soya is a nutritious food with a high protein content and full complement of essential amino acids, but the realities of its cultivation and consumption do not always match the healthy image that soya enjoyed. Recent public concern has focused on the potential threat to human health and the environment from genetically-engineered or genetically-manipulated (GM) soya. GM soya and its derivatives are in our food, yet we may not know if we are eating these ingredients, nor if we are eating eggs, milk or meat from animals fed on GM soya.

Genetically-engineered or not, the impact of soya production on the environment is enormous, with environmental, health and social implications.

Ghost hectares and food miles

In 1998 the UK imported over 2,000,000 tonnes of soya products, mainly from the USA and Brazil, over half for animal feed. It is cheaper for UK farmers to rely on 'ghost hectares' of intensively-grown soya abroad, often in developing countries, than to rely on home-produced high-protein feed alternatives.

Transporting soya over 5000 miles to end up as a feed for intensively-reared livestock in the UK has serious environmental implications. The ghost hectares abroad for feeding British livestock (400,000 hectares in 1995) can undermine food and land security in exporting countries. In Brazil alone an area of 13 million hectares (equivalent to England and Scotland combined) is devoted to growing soya. This crop has replaced thousands of square miles of small farms, whilst its highly mechanised cultivation has contributed to unemployment and rural migration.

Pesticide use

Soya crops and maize corn account for the highest percentage of worldwide pesticide sales. The conventional soya crop receives at least two applications of herbicide. US farmers used 27,496 tonnes of herbicide on their crop in 1996.

Despite the claims of manufacturers such as Monsanto, whose Round Up Ready soya (RRS) is genetically engineered to be resistant to their own herbicide glyphosate (sold as Round Up), it seems likely that pesticide use will increase with the introduction of GM soya. This will exacerbate the health and environmental dangers associated with herbicide residues. Since the introduction of RRS in the USA (it made up 50 per cent of the US soybean area in 1998) sales of glyphosate have increased by 70 per cent; good news for Monsanto, but not for the environment.

GM soya

Genetically-modified soya is already grown in the US and Argentina, and is due to be sown in Brazil in the 1999/2000 season. It is possible that these herbicide-resistant crops may pass on their resistant properties to weeds, contributing to the risk of herbicide-resistant 'super weeds' and locking farmers into a cycle of using even higher amounts of agrochemicals on their crops.
As yet, it is unknown whether the introduction of GM soya might be harmful to human health. In addition to the presence of glyphosate residues in food, even traceable via animal feed, there are also concerns about the allergenic and toxic potential of the enzymes that GM crops introduce into the food chain.

Animal feed

As a result of consumer concerns, much of the food industry is now trying to source non-GM soya, but large numbers of UK livestock have been eating GM soya for at least two years. There have been no tests to prove that the DNA from GM soya is destroyed during processing and digestion, and there is evidence that modified genes can cross the gut wall into the bloodstream.
When SAFE Alliance contacted the food industry and supermarkets few were able to inform us whether chickens currently being bred for laying and for meat are being fed GM soya. Soya is the main source of protein for the majority of UK-reared hens, both battery and free-range, but only organic chickens are fed guaranteed non-GM feed.

Your veggie burger

Veggie burgers, most of which are made from soya-based Textured Vegetable Protein, are promoted as a healthy alternative to meat products and are now eaten by 24 per cent of consumers. A SAFE Alliance survey of the leading makers of veggie burgers found that, although the majority claim they do not use GM soya in their products, the consumer has no guarantee that the veggie burger does not contain GM soya derivatives, and the manufacturer is under no obligation to make sure they are GM-free. Moreover, many veggie burgers are fried in soya-based vegetable oil which will not need not be labelled if it derives from GM crops. Current EC legislation only requires food containing protein or DNA from GM soya to be declared.

Soya infant formula milk

Soya-based infant formula milk is widely available, often on the same shelves as varieties based on cows-milk, and is currently given to around 3 per cent of infants in the UK. This soya milk still contains isoflavone, a type of phytoestrogen that mimics the female hormone oestrogen, exposure to which has been shown to have effects on infants, particularly on future fertility and reproductive development. The UK Government has advised parents not to use soya-based formula without medical supervision, yet there is nothing to prevent parents using soya formula, neither are there any warnings on the packs.

Recommendations for consumers

  • Buy organic soya. This will have been produced in an environmentally-friendly way without the use of agrochemicals and will not have been genetically modified.
  • Cut down on the amount of processed foods you eat. Read the ingredients labels on all processed foods to avoid soya and genetically-modified soya.
  • Avoid soya-based formula milk for babies and breast feed babies for as long as possible.
  • Buy certified organic meat, eggs and dairy products whenever possible. Iorganically reared livestock will only have been fed soya certified GM-free.
  • If you buy conventionally-produced meat, ask retailers and manufacturers whether the animals you are eating were fed on GM soya. Make it clear that you would prefer animals fed non-GM soya or no soya at all.

 Download 'Soya the ubiquitous bean' and other titles from the Food Facts series

Food Facts: A series of short reports on over a dozen different products, shows how people's shopping choices - as well as government policy - can protect the environment, enhance social justice and improve health.

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