On Soy, Soybeans and Mixed Messages
As a vegan and an environmentalist, I can’t avoid the topic of soy. Soy’s a mixed bag, as soybeans and soy products have health benefits (good), soybeans are a monoculture (bad), soybeans are threatening the Amazon rainforest (bad), soy products can be fantastic transition foods for omnivores (good) as well as fine staples of a vegan diet (good), yet many people think that vegans are eating super-processed meat analogs all day (bad), which can’t be good for anyone (um, bad?).
Then there’s the moment we’ve all experienced, where an omnivore armed with a statistic or a fact, such as that soybeans threaten the Amazon rainforest, blames vegans for that devastation. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing though, as “roughly 70% of the [world's soybean] harvest ends up as soybean meal to be consumed by livestock and poultry.”
Let’s face it: demand for animal products worldwide is not decreasing, but increasing (which makes me wonder why “The world is vegan if you want it” is in any way realistic, but I have no desire to argue about that right now). This is due not only to population growth but to rising incomes, which make it possible for many in China (and elsewhere), to eat more animal products. If we are going to stave off the further annihilation of the rainforests and the animals, and even begin to address climate change in a meaningful way, it seems to me that we are going to have to reach environmentalists.
However, if you’ve spent any time dealing with environmentalists you know that the biggest obstacle to vegan education is the reality that you can be an environmentalist and eat animals. Not factory farmed animals, true, and that’s who most people are eating. But if you have a chicken and a cow in your backyard–or your neighbor does; or if you go to the stream down the block and yank some poor fish from it and eat him; and you combine this with low household waste, public or limited car transportation, low airline mileage, attached housing, and whatever else that makes a footprint smaller, you absolutely could argue that eating animals can be part of an environmentalist’s life. The only problem with this scenario is it’s not what’s happening, but many environmentalist’s will debate as if buying eggs from Whole Foods nets the same footprint as buying from the neighbor with the chicken.
The mixed message has probably already occurred in the previous paragraph, for some people. I don’t think it’s okay to use animals for their parts, but I do think you can create a scenario where you can be a “meat-eating environmentalist.” I also think that the vast, vast majority of people claiming to be meat-eating environmentalists do not in fact quality. This is a dicey area, but I think it’s necessary to unpack exactly what about the animal products environmentalists are consuming is supposed to be so planet friendly.
The final mixed message, if it can be called that, is that, generally speaking, the fewer animal products you consume, the better it is for the planet. There’s no way out of that. It’s not a vegan message, but it sure is a pro-environment message. It feels wrong, for obvious reasons, to promote that message rather than a vegan one. But when it comes to environmentalists, do you think we should be talking about 1) eating fewer animals; or 2) eating no animals; or 3) should we instead be concentrating on the source and how environmentally-unfriendly it (probably) is?
Photograph: Stephen Ferry/Getty