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On Soy, Soybeans and Mixed Messages

January 2, 2010

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil.

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

44 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    January 2, 2010 7:13 pm

    I get that frequently. I have friends who hunt and feed and kill animals. They tell me things like “I want to live sustainably and raising my own animals are a way to do it and at least I’m not eating all that soy that’s ending the rain forest”. I know they don’t eat just their own animals and it’s great to know 70% of the world soy production goes to non-human animals. In Jared Diamond’s, Collapse, he writes that it takes 10-20 lbs of food to get 1 lb of animal meat.

  2. Amelia permalink
    January 3, 2010 5:51 pm

    I became vegan on the strength of the environmental messages, so it does happen! It makes me just as nauseous to think of the deforestation in the Amazon as most people do about animal cruelty. I also don’t think it’s possible to be serious about environmentalism and eat meat, not once you know the facts. Any conversations I have with non-vegans about it usually focus on the facts and figures, leaving them to draw their own conclusions about what ought to be done.

  3. January 4, 2010 2:23 am

    Mary,
    One could be a racist environmentalist. One could be a child abuser environmentalist. One could be a homophobic environmentalist. One could force themselves sexually on someone else for the feeling of power and domination or for a sexual release it might bring and still recycle, drive a prius and only consume food which they grow on their own land.
    In other words you could be a rapist environmentalist as well.
    All plausible and all possible.
    When there are victims involved as with the above scenarios and with animals being killed for food, this is where the problem begins and ends. It’s an ethical issue and it’s really the only point that matters. The problem is…as we all know too well that animals lives still do not matter to most people. That’s where we must begin.
    This is the area and the issue we have to change. We need to change peoples hearts to care about the ethical responsibilities they have when there are real flesh and blood victims involved.
    I think focusing on the wrongs and the injustice of oppression along with the unethical aspects of killing sentient beings, whether human or non human, seems the only rational approach to take when dealing with this issue.
    Fighting about soybeans is not a good place to end up…. unless its at a soybean processing plant rather than a blood filled slaughterhouse processing real live animals.

    • January 4, 2010 3:51 pm

      Hi Philip,
      My point is really that there are environmentalists who aren’t going to embrace animal rights. Their focus is the environment and though they might claim to care about animals and not want to hurt them, they’re not going to stop eating them anytime soon. They simply do not see this as a justice or oppression issue. And they are hostile to vegans and like to talk about the environmental devastation we are causing. And they talk about soybeans. At least in my world. But what they either don’t know or don’t want to admit, is that 1% of Americans are vegans and 70% of the soybeans are going to feed animals so people can later eat those animals. In other words, their own argument against veganism is actually an argument *for* veganism, but they don’t appear to know that. So if they claim that it’s possible to be a meat-eating environmentalist, I like to explore that a bit and address the possible holes in their argument. This doesn’t mean I don’t do my level best to make some headway regarding justice; it just means I’m starting with what they’re giving me.

      • January 5, 2010 4:15 am

        Mary,

        I agree that this soybean statistic should be dealt out to the omnivore who blames vegans for the devastation of the rain forest. Ive used it many times. Although I was under the impression that most of the rainforest soybeans were sent to China for animal feed.
        I agree with you as well that most people don’t see animals used for food as victims of oppression. That doesn’t mean we can’t stay close to that argument while dishing out the environmental facts to the Concerned Citizens For Rock and Granite Protection spokes people.
        However, I would also say in the same way that an environmentalist could also be an oppressive racist misogynist while still recycling…. they could also have no moral justification for eating animals as well.
        It’s a tough one because eating animals even for the socially conscious eco warrior still represents a sense of tradition and ties them to other people “socially’. You know..organic pizza and wine after a day of handing out recycled paper flyers about switching to green light bulbs saves energy and money.
        They are afraid whether they admit it or not…to make (in their minds not ours) the sacrifices and compromises necessary to really shut down this existing system of exploitation and killing. It’s too much….
        I once had Laurie David tell me… she didn’t push the veggie argument because she didn’t want to alienate meat eaters from going green!
        That says it all!

      • January 5, 2010 6:19 am

        That is exactly why I find environmentalists the most difficult group to reach. They don’t see “their” issue as connected to anything.

        They do often (and not all of them, of course) believe they are the only ones “trying to save the planet,” though. And they’re usually the people I end up in front of!

  4. January 4, 2010 3:26 pm

    Mary,

    “The world is vegan if you want it” is an 8-word slogan. As such, it is subject to interpretation and misinterpretation, as are most politically-charged slogans. You can interpret it sarcastically, as if all we need to do is chant or pray long and hard enough. You can interpret it literally and sarcastically (as it appears you have done), as if all we have to do is “want” a vegan world and it will happen. Or, you can interpret it as it is intended by those who promote it: as a call to action, personal responsibility, and empowerment. IOW, you can go vegan and encourage others to do so; we don’t need more regulations and welfarism – that is the slogan’s intended message.

    Nobody, myself included, who promotes this slogan believes that the world is currently vegan or will be vegan during the next decade or three, even if all vegans wanted it (and many so-called “vegans” don’t want a vegan world). Most (or all) of us do believe that most of the world can be vegan several decades from now, *if and only if* a viable, long-term abolitionist movement arises. As it is, with the vast majority of vegans stubbornly and stupidly supporting welfarism, it is doubtful that a viable, long-term abolitionist movement will ever come about; therefore, it is doubtful that a vegan world will ever come about. But if we want a vegan world, we can completely reject welfarism and completely embrace veganism in its place: “The world is vegan, if you want it”.

  5. January 5, 2010 4:18 am

    Dan,

    There”s an old Jewish expression/slogan/saying.

    When you’re in love… the whole worlds Jewish!!!

  6. January 5, 2010 2:56 pm

    I don’t know what your comment’s point is in the context of the slogan and my comment, Philip.

  7. January 6, 2010 8:03 am

    That’s an interesting statistic about the percentage of soy that feeds animals. I knew it was high but didn’t realize it was that high!

    This post has given me a lot to think about.

    The thing that gets me about soy is the Monsanto connection. They produce some crazy high percentage of the world’s soy crops with their GM seeds. I don’t want to support them with my food dollars, but, like you said, soy is sort of a vegan staple.

  8. January 6, 2010 7:51 pm

    Becky, I think if you stick to organic soy, you’ll be avoiding Monsanto. Apparently you have to also look specifically at the soy lecithin ingredient to make sure it is labeled organic, because a packaged food could overall be labeled organic even with non-organic soy lecithin.

  9. January 7, 2010 7:23 am

    Ooh that makes sense! That’s a helpful tip about soy lecithin.

    It always seems to come back to diligent label-reading, doesn’t it? I wish something as simple as feeding ourselves wasn’t so buyer beware.

  10. Dante permalink
    February 16, 2010 6:52 pm

    So… does this mean that it is wrong for lions to eat gazelles?

  11. February 16, 2010 7:00 pm

    Dante,
    I’m guessing that’s supposed to be a joke.
    Of course it’s not wrong for lions to eat gazelles.
    We’re talking about humans and the decisions they make regarding the “food” choices that are available to them. We don’t make moral judgments about other species.

    • Dante permalink
      February 21, 2010 7:20 pm

      No, it’s not meant as a joke. I was created and designed to eat plants and meat, therefore your theory is questionable to me. Moral judgments shouldn’t be made for human beings either. Does this mean that we shouldn’t live responsibly? No. Does this mean that vegetarianism is the answer? I don’t believe so. Both animals and plants are provided for human existence. We have free will which means we can chose not to eat animals, but no way does it mean that eating animals is wrong.

  12. February 22, 2010 9:47 am

    Dante,

    By your choice of words (i.e. that you were “created” and that non-human animals were “provided”), I presume that you believe a deity intentionally “created” and “provided”. If such a deity exists who/that would “create” or “provide” sentient food, then that deity is a monster worthy of only disgust and contempt.

    Actually, though, there are no deities, goblins, fairies, or ghosts who/that created or provided anything. The only contempt to be had is for the ignorance and violence of humans who can overcome such ignorance and violence.

    Speciesism is the same underlying irrational prejudice as racism, sexism, and heterosexism, only in a different superficial form. The irrational prejudice in each case is favoring morally irrelevant characteristics over morally relevant characteristics in deciding whether to respect another sentient being’s important interests (important to that being regardless of whether or not such interests are important to anyone else).

    You have no more right or justification to intentionally kill a nonhuman animal than another human has to intentionally kill you for no good reason. Going vegan is a moral imperative.

  13. February 23, 2010 11:44 pm

    Who says it is irrelevant.

    Whether an action or behavior is justified is a matter of reasoning from basic principles of right and wrong. If an action or behavior is unjustified, then it is a moral imperative that it not be done. What if you do it anyway? Then you’re morally wrong.

    • Dante permalink
      February 24, 2010 7:40 am

      Who says is the most relevant point here. Without it you have no basis of your argument. You can only claim something is morally wrong if you have morals to follow and the morals or “reasoning from basic principle of right or wrong”, as you put it, don’t just arrive on their own like they are a living entity. Who or what makes the basic principles?

      • February 24, 2010 9:26 am

        “Who says” is known in meta-ethics as subjectivism. Subjectivism commits the fallacy of appealing to authority to arbitrarily dictate right from wrong.

        Is X good or right because the authority likes it? Or does the authority like X because it is good or right? If you answer affirmative to the first question, then you are merely submitting yourself to the whim of the authority (moral subjectivism). If the authority likes innocent children being tortured, then torturing children is good and right. If you answer affirmative to the second question, you deny the authority’s power to arbitrarily dictate what is good and right and assert that the question of good and right is derived from intuition or basic principles of right and wrong that exist independently of authority or “who said it” (moral realism). Torturing innocent children, then, is bad and wrong, and that’s a moral fact existing independent of authority or “who said it”.

  14. Dante permalink
    February 24, 2010 10:25 am

    You have lots to say but you still have not answered the question.

    • February 24, 2010 10:44 am

      My answer is very clear in my previous post. I’ve explained why the question “who says?” is irrelevant and why there are basic principles of right and wrong independent of the question “who says?”. I’m not sure if you simply don’t understand my answer, or realize that you’ve been defeated and are being evasive to avoid acknowledging it.

      • Dante permalink
        February 24, 2010 11:32 am

        I understand your answer. And yes, you have answered that you believe there is no ‘who’, but have not answered then the ‘what’. There has to be and answer to either. We were not just here out of nothingness as that is impossible logic.

  15. February 24, 2010 12:05 pm

    Distinguishing right from wrong is similar to distinguishing black from white or the concept of 1+1=2. We don’t need any authority to tell us that black is different from white or that the concept 1+1=2 is true or that something is morally wrong. Nor do we need to know “what” caused black to be different from white, 1+1=2 is true, and that torturing an innocent child is wrong. All of these truths can be known independent of any questions about “who” or “what” through direct perceptual or conceptual experience.

    Torturing or killing an innocent child simply because the torturer derives pleasure from it is morally wrong. Its moral wrongness is based on the basic moral principle that causing unnecessary pain or death to an innocent is wrong. No further explanation is required. We need not appeal to any authority to validate it. It simply is.

    If you disagree here without an extraordinarily good reason to disagree (and there is no good reason to disagree), the discussion is finished from my standpoint. I would not attempt a rational discussion about colors with someone who pointed to black and said “that’s white”. I would not attempt a rational discussion about mathematics with someone who disagreed that 1+1=2 is true. And I will not attempt a discussion about morality with someone who doesn’t accept stand-alone basic moral principles (independent of “who” and “what” questions) such as “causing unnecessary pain or death to an innocent is wrong.”

  16. Dante permalink
    February 24, 2010 12:18 pm

    From what i interpret in your response is that we all are the authority. There is a problem with that and you have demonstrated it quite well. To suggest that there is a ‘defeat’ scenario here implies that there is power to be gained. I am not looking to gain power, however, your statements do.

    A concern of mine, in this life, is the effects of lies. You bring in abuse to children. We were not discussing that issue. Animals that humans consume are not children.

    There really is only one argument here; what is truth verses what is lies. It is either one or the other and thus there has to be a source of truth from somewhere by someone or something. All of your statements support your belief system of which i believe is based on lies. I believe my belief system is based on truth. I am concerned for you.

    • February 24, 2010 12:42 pm

      You interpreted my comments incorrectly. I don’t appeal to collective subjectivism any more than to individual collectivism. If everyone pointed to black and said “that’s white” (and we all agreed on the meaning of the two words), they would all be objectively wrong. It’s the same with basic moral principles.

      Power has nothing to do with it. When I use the word “defeat”, I mean it in the sense that A “defeats” B if and only if A has made a sound argument that B cannot refute. Again, power has nothing to do with it.

      I brought children up primarily because it made my point very well. However, I have no problem comparing children and nonhuman animals morally. Children and animals are very similar. They are both innocent (as long as they are not currently harming anyone or immediately threatening to harm someone). They are both sentient (i.e. they both feel pain and pleasure and want to live). They are both vulnerable to unfair manipulation. It is equally wrong to enslave, exploit, torture, or kill any of them, all for precisely the same reasons.

      Finally, your claim that everything boils down to truth versus lies and that your belief system is based on truth while mine is based on lies is arbitrary and meaningless without reasons to support it.

      The real disagreement here likely boils down to speciesism. Speciesism is an irrational cultural prejudice similar to racism, sexism, and heterosexism. All of them favor morally irrelevant characteristics over morally relevant characteristics in attempting to justify ignoring a sentient being’s important interests (interests which are important to that being regardless of whether they are important to anyone else).

      • February 24, 2010 12:44 pm

        Correction:

        In the second sentence of my last comment, I meant to write: “I don’t appeal to collective subjectivism any more than to individual subjectivism.”

  17. Dante permalink
    February 24, 2010 1:25 pm

    Thank you. You finally answered my question. Your authority is psychologist Richard D. Ryder.
    My belief system is not based on any human authority.

    • February 24, 2010 2:04 pm

      I don’t mean to interrupt, but no, the authority is not Ryder. To use the above example, abusing animals is just as wrong as abusing children is. It is not right to use/harm a sentient being–human or otherwise–unless it’s absolutely necessary. And in 2010 in the developed world, it’s not necessary.

      And finally, Dante, remember that every religious text on Planet Earth was written by human beings. Your belief system is indeed based on human “authority.”

      • February 24, 2010 2:17 pm

        Thank you, Mary. Good answer. I have nothing to add to your reply to Dante. The phenomenon of speciesism existed long before Ryder named it.

  18. Dante permalink
    February 24, 2010 3:14 pm

    Thank you Mary for your input. I do not view it as an interruption at all. Dialogue by all is best. I will clarify for you. Both of you are still putting humans in authority by your belief system. I do not. If it is not Ryder than who? Neither of you are willing to state.

    Mary Maritn, you are incorrect in saying that every religious text on planet earth was written by human beings. In addition, your final statement is without warrant as you do not even know what my belief system is.

    Vegetarianism, vegan or other, is a lifestyle choice. To state anything other than that is, in itself a religion. Humans’ misuse and abuse of this world (including everything within this world) is a problem and has been since the beginning of time. The problem is larger due to larger population of humans therefore there are more to misuse and abuse. Not eating animals is not the answer to the problem. If everyone on the planet stopped eating animals, the problem would still exist.

  19. Dante permalink
    February 24, 2010 6:00 pm

    The theories that you have stated are flawed and harmful. Radical groups, such as PETA (of which you promote on this site), are hypocrites. The violence on their website caused emotional trauma to a “sentient being”, my daughter, when she was doing research for a project at school. Careless, thoughtless, disrespectful. This is how I came across this site – to investigate vegetarianism more. Hence why I ask my initial question.

    Furthermore, one could argue that having pets is not conducive to your theories. You assume that they enjoy being your pet. You can not prove that they do as I am confident in believing that you don’t speak dog language or able to read their minds. You can only make assumptions based on your human interpretation of their behaviour. How do you know that they wouldn’t be happier in freedom away from humans?

  20. February 24, 2010 6:17 pm

    Dante,
    Nowhere in my writing will you see support for PeTA.
    I consider the rational educating of individuals, even children, about what goes into creating animal products to be a demonstration of respect.

    Also, I do not think that humans should keep dogs and cats and horses (or any other nonhuman) as pets. To the contrary, I do hope that some day we will stop breeding them and stop putting them in a position where they need to be rescued. I rescue animals because the alternative (an unjust death) isn’t something I consider an option.

  21. February 24, 2010 6:26 pm

    Dante,

    If you can’t understand by now that Mary and I do not appeal to any authority whatsoever, except our conscience, empathy, basic moral principles, and reasoning from basic moral principles, then there is no hope that you’ll understand.

    Veganism is simply refraining from speciesism in attitude, thought, speech, and behavior. It’s as secular as refraining from racism and human chattel slavery. There is nothing religious about it – no rituals; no afterlife belief; no metaphysics.

    I also strongly reject PETA and agree that they are hypocritical. Despite their false claims to the contrary, they are NOT an animal rights organization, but an animal welfare organization. They are an obstacle to animal rights.

    I also agree with Mary on pets. I think the institution of pet ownership, by which I specifically mean breeding, buying, and selling nonhuman animals, is wrong and should be abolished. Until the time comes when breeding slows down sufficiently, I think rescuing and adopting unwanted “pets” to give them love and care is to be encouraged.

    • Dante permalink
      February 25, 2010 6:58 am

      To coin a phrase, “The end does not justify the means”. If you released the animals you save then maybe I would believe that you are authentic. I see you both as hypocrites that are in denial. Mary Martin; you support PETA by the mere fact that you are a contributor to a publication that promotes them. Plus, regardless of whether you both want to believe that you don’t have any authority you do and you even say so – you say it is yourself – of whom is a human being. What gives you the power to dictate morals? Humans are depraved and incapable to dictate morals, ethics, rights or laws.

      To clarify, the definition of religion is not what you state. You conveniently miss meaning, unless of course you don’t believe in the English dictionary; 4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion).

  22. February 25, 2010 7:09 am

    Dante,

    I don’t believe that this publication supports PeTA. Why would you say that?

    I adopted 3 special needs animals, all of whom would be dead if I released them. In addition, humans created the overpopulation situation and as a human I feel obligated to try to do something about it by giving homes to some of the animals we have created. I also Trap, Neuter and Release feral cats in my community by the dozens.

    We disagree on many–if not all points–and it doesn’t seem to be a good use of anyone’s energy to continue this discussion. You do not think it is wrong to use/abuse sentient nonhumans when it is not necessary and I know in my heart and mind that it is as wrong as doing the same things to children.

    Good day.

  23. February 25, 2010 8:02 am

    Dante,

    First, it doesn’t get any more hypocritical than you — an animal exploitation advocate — telling people who do not exploit animals that saving the lives of and caring for refugees of the deplorable institution of pet ownership (or, treating animals as commodities) who have been domesticated and cannot live out their lives in the wild that what we do is immoral. I would call it arrogant, too, but as you’ll see in the next paragraph, I honestly think you’re merely underdeveloped in your moral capacity. Therefore I don’t see you as arrogant, but merely ignorant.

    Second, we are not the authority either. I suppose, like very young child, you are literally incapable of thinking of morality outside of the concept of authority (which happens to be the lowest and most underdeveloped view of morality under Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development). It is a shame that you are so profoundly underdeveloped in your moral capacity, and I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s just a sad fact.

    People who reason from universalized principles of justice are on the sixth and highest stage of moral development under Kohlberg’s scale. People in stage six generate moral progress in society. People in stage six extend principles of justice to individuals — usually members of groups previously excluded by society from the moral community — who have an important interest in being treated justly. The principles themselves come from no authority whatsoever, just like the concept of 1+1=2 comes from no authority.

    Third, the fourth meaning listed in the dictionary refers to virtually a slang meaning, as when people say something like “Watching NASCAR and drinking beer is my religion!” So, you are equivocating on the meaning of religion, Dante. Using the primary and core meaning of religion, veganism is not even remotely close to being a religion (any more than refraining from owning slaves is a religion).

    I agree with Mary that this discussion has become unproductive at best.

  24. Dante permalink
    March 15, 2010 3:20 pm

    Mary Martin – I saw the PETA link on the site that’s why I said it. I didn’t make it up. And please do not misquote and accuse me falsely. If you re-read my earlier postings I am NOT in agreeance to the misuse and abuse of animals. Where I disagree with you is your definition of misuse. I don’t understand why you think eating meat is wrong. It can be done without it being abusive. And your quote “And in 2010 in the developed world, it’s not necessary.” is confusing as well. Who deems what is necessary? That has been my query to you.

    Dan UVE – I have nothing further to say to you because of your arguments of resistance to realize that you give humans authority – to keep quoting the theory of 1+1=2 shows it as it is a human theory to make mathematical sense of this world and a way to universally communicate in it.

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