Being mostly-vegan is certainly not easy. It doesn’t make you popular at restaurants, family gatherings or with people who love steak. But with the proper planning, it’s doable. And it’s worth doing because you know you’re living a more socially responsible lifestyle.
Or so I thought. My guiltless self-affirmation was called into question one night when my roommate looked at my dinner, a soy-based veggie burger with soy cheese plus edamame and observed, “Wow, everything you’re eating is made from soy.” Something about this declaration made me take pause. I’d been hearing a lot about soy in a negative context. As someone who loves Silk Soy about as much as I love animals, I’d chosen to ignore it. But if my diet was so soy heavy, I considered that I wasn’t as eco-friendly (or as healthy) as I thought.
The first big question I had about soy was: does it really reduce carbon emissions? A big part of my choice to be vegan was the belief that I was drastically reducing my carbon footprint in doing so. Unfortunately, I found in some cases, the answer is no. In fact, in the Amazon, where deforestation causes about 20 percent of climate change, it is frequently soy that’s causing the problem.
Fortunately, Greenpeace took the lead in pushing for a soy moratorium in Brazil that disallowed the planting of soy on deforested land and it seems to be working. In 2008, CNN reported no deforested land was used to grow soy. This year’s reports are due in a few weeks, but even if the moratorium proves successful, it doesn’t let us off the hook from being conscientious about our soy consumption, and even reducing it.
Of course, vegetarians, or humans in general, aren’t directly consuming the majority of the soy. The BBC reported that around 80 percent of the crop feeds the animals we eat. So we still need to consume less meat to decrease carbon emissions (and our indirect soy consumption), but if we want to be effective in our crusade, we can’t replace that hamburger with a nice slab of tofu, either. If we’re eating soy, we’re responsible for some of the damage.
Sadly, even organic soy products may not be as green as we think. Now, it’s pretty much confirmed that Silk Soy is using beans from Brazil and China, despite the organic label. The Organic Consumers Organization is encouraging people to boycott Silk Soy (yes, my heart is breaking) because of the way workers in these countries are treated and because even with monitoring, these soy farms still threaten the environment.
Even in the U.S., soy is grown most often industrially as a monocrop — a single crop in a giant field — meaning that it requires plenty of pesticides to maintain. Most of the soy grown on our shores and abroad is also genetically modified, something many argue was not properly tested before being okayed by the USDA. And it is not just vegans who are noshing on it; soy finds its way into most of the products on our supermarket’s shelves these days, in the form of vegetable oil or lecithin, which is used as an emulsifier.
Beyond the environmental implications, the health implications are daunting. While the majority of scientific studies tout soy’s ability to regulate hormones for women, others discuss a connection to breast cancer. And as for men, soy is said to lower their sperm count in large quantities. This is all encouraging news for moderation.
In short, there is indubitably a dark side to soy. Though I love the taste of soy products, if being more careful about its consumption is the greener thing to do, I’m committed to doing it. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives out there.
A Slate investigation comparing the carbon footprint of soy vs. cow milk reminds us that turning soybeans into milk actually expends quite a bit of energy, as does transporting and distributing it. We should probably be drinking less of these pre-packaged alternatives to milk, and consider making our own. That being said, there are also alternatives to consider for health reasons. My personal favorite is almond milk. Blue Diamond makes several delicious varieties that are fortified with calcium and high in Vitamin E. Oat milk is higher in protein, and Pacific Natural Food’s brand is packed with calcium, iron and riboflavin.
As for the soy-based veggie burger, they may be ubiquitous, but personally, I find bean-based veggie burgers to be more flavorful and less artificial tasting. You can also reinforce eating and growing locally by making your own veggie burgers. The Savvy Vegetarian has a great all-vegan recipe for black-bean veggie burgers. And if you eat eggs, check out 101 Cookbook’s Ultimate Veggie Burger Recipe using garbanzo beans.
Another oft-overlooked source of protein is in grains. I did some research on gluten-free grains and what I found is that almost all wheat-alternatives are protein-packed and vitamin-rich. Grains such quinoa, spelt and farro offer endless options for recipes, and for health. Each packs its own unique flavor and set of nutrients, and can carry a meal while preventing the vegetarian’s “pasta-again” ennui.
Of course, the best way to ensure you are getting a good quality product is to know your farmer. Buying soy locally, and eating it in moderation (like they do in Asia, where soy-based food is most popular) and you will be greener and healthier to boot.