Are All Vegetarian Products Environmentally Friendly?: An Investigation into Soy

Photo courtesy of Big Grey Mare |

If your a vegetarian, you've probably seen and eaten your fair share of 'meat alternative' products, ranging from veggie burgers to non-dairy milk. If you jumped on the vegetarian train for ethical or environmental reasons it's important to ask yourself which meat and dairy alternatives you're choosing to rely on, and what their environmental impacts are.

                Soy has dominated the vegetarian protein market since the early 1970s in the form of tempeh, tofu and soy milk.  Additionally, soy has become one of the premier additives in processed foods appearing in everything from oreos to canned soup. The increased demand for this tiny white bean has led to an explosion of the number of farmers growing soybean crops, with over 22,000,000 acres of farmland being devoted to soybean growth in the United States alone (US Agricultural Census 2007). For those who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle because of its environmental benefits or are interested in the ecological impacts of their food, it is important to investigate the wider impacts of soybean production.

                Greenpeace issued a moratorium on soybean growth in Brazil in 2008 because large factory farms own by the popular Silk Soy company were cutting down hundreds of acres of the Amazonian rainforest to provide themselves with (temporarily) fertile fields. Consumer groups reported that even Silks organic soy line was using soybeans grown on these Faustian fields.

                The majority of soy farmers plant only soy in their fields; many of them planting aggressive GM soy varieties exclusively, created a monoculture of a singular crop for hundreds of acres in order to exponentially multiply their profits. This style of growth, which is not exclusive to soy productions and is also seen in corn, canola and cotton production, is extremely detrimental to the protection of biological diversity.  This style of agricultural production makes crops more vulnerable, since only one crop exists in this mini ecosystem one aggressive weed or pest can devastate the entire harvest. This has caused soy to require heavy applications of pesticides and herbicides to kill all surrounding plants, soil bacteria and other ‘threats’.

                As a sometimes vegan myself, I’m torn. When you compare soy milk to cow’s milk, soy still comes out, environmentally, on top, using 10 times less fossil fuels per calorie of protein.  However, few people actually eat raw soybeans, and the production process for products like veggie burgers, tofurkey, tofu and soy milk is incredibly energy intensive. What is a vegetarian or eco-conscious eater to do in this scenario? My advice is to make your own dairy and meat replacements from natural ingredients whenever possible. Almond milk and natural black bean burgers are incredibly easy to make and don’t require you to rely on animal or soy products!

Lauren Murphy