Environmentally speaking, eating meat is an awful thing to do. Whether is beef, pork, chicken or fish, meat is costly to our natural world to produce. Forests must be plowed into fields for grazing, even more food must be grown to feed the beasts, which produce more agricultural waste and, by and large, it’s a horribly destructive process. Fish would be a great alternative, if we hadn’t already overfished somewhere around 70% of the world’s fisheries, and farmed fish didn’t produce many of the same issues as farmed cattle or chickens, including runoff and habitat destruction. To me, the ecological impacts of meat consumption are the best argument I’ve ever heard for becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

It would be great if we could just stop eating meat all together. But there’s one problem – we need complete dietary protein, and about 60 grams a day of it. This is what I call the Protein Problem: the problem is that we need a lot of protein, nutritionally speaking, but producing it is an ecological nightmare. If you’ve read my post about why protein is so nutritionally important, you know that meat is simply the best source of complete dietary protein. But it’s not the only source of it, and many human herbivores instead choose to eat soybean products, for they are rare in the vegetable kingdom in that they, too, contain all the essential amino acids that people need in their daily diet. Tofu and other soy products have been around for centuries, but lately they’ve become more and more popular as people seek an ecologically friendly way of eating a balanced diet.

But is becoming vegetarian and eating tofu the solution to our protein problem? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Brief History of Soy

Soybeans – a common crop

The soybean (or soya bean) is a species of legume, which places it in the same family as many pod-forming vegetables like peas as well as beans and lentils. Worldwide, over 150 million acres are planted every year. In the US, soybean oil accounts for about 80% of all the vegetable oils and animal fats (including things like butter) consumed each year. Due to it’s high production rate, it’s also often targeted for genetic engineering, and almost 90% of the 70 some odd million acres of US soybeans last year were genetically modified. Despite the large numbers, very little of the yearly soy crop is actually eaten by people. Most of it has its oils removed for use in industrial settings, the leftovers of which are used as animal feed.

People have been planting soybeans for over 5,000 years, but not to eat – like other legumes, soya plants fix nitrogen in the soil, making fields more fertile for other crops. It wasn’t until people started fermenting soy somewhere around 2,000 years ago that people began eating it, and even then it’s not been a huge part of the Asian diet. It only accounts for about 1% of the protein in their diet – the rest, go figure, is almost entirely from fish.

Soybeans are made into soymilk (which can be made into tofu), soy sauce, miso and oil. The beans are nutritious, though they cannot be eaten raw, for they contain enzymes that need to be deactivated by wet heat, as well as a host of compounds that aren’t terribly good for you. There is even some debate as to how much of this bad stuff goes away even when they’re fermented or cooked – just to warn you. But they can be up to 1/3 protein by weight, including all of the essential amino acids, as well as low in fat and high in other vitamins.

Most often, those who eat soy products as a dietary source of protein consume soymilk or its derivative, tofu. Soymilk is produced by soaking dry soybeans and grinding them with water. Tofu, in turn, is made from soymilk like cheese is from milk, by coagulating the protein into curd. Both contain much less protein than the beans did originally, though soymilk is comparable to cow’s milk while tofu contains only about 1/2 the amount of protein as cheese, though it also contains significantly fewer calories. Unlike the animal products they resemble, soymilk and tofu are naturally deficient in calcium, though often this nutrient is added during processing.

Soy’s Environmental Footprint

Soy products are often touted as natural alternatives to meat, but they’re far from it. Many are genetically modified, coated with herbicides and pesticides, and harvested with heavy machinery. Once taken from the land, the soybeans are processed in high-temperature factories and shipped thousands of gas-guzzling miles to end up on supermarket shelves. It would be funny that they’re called “natural,” if it wasn’t just so darned depressing to know the truth.

When you understand soy, beef starts to look better

Soy isn’t some miracle food that somehow helps out the planet while we eat it. Like any other plant, soybeans have to be cultivated agriculturally. This takes space and water, and means it will have an environmental cost no matter what. The impact of growing soy, in particular, has been devastating to the world’s natural resources.

Soy is native to Asia, but most of it isn’t grown there – it’s grown in the Americas. Why does that matter? It matters because when a plant is grown in an environment that it’s not native to, it can cause all kinds of problems. Because they are predominately grown in foreign soils, soybeans are one of the most disease-riddled crops out there. To combat this, soya farmers coat their fields in lots of pesticides and herbicides, and similarly soya has become one of the most genetically engineered crops in the world.

Unlike potentially environmentally friendly alterations that can be made (like making a plant drought-resistant so less water is used, or flood resistant so that weeds can be removed by flooding instead of chemicals), soy is most often engineered to resist herbicides so that more chemicals can be sprayed on them to combat other weeds. The end result of which, of course, is that more toxins are being used to produce soy than any other cash crop, with the exception of corn. Indeed, soy products are some of the most pesticide-contaminated foodstuffs in the world – even the organic soy (remember, organic doesn’t mean chemical-free).

In South America, soy farming is one of the worst things ecologically that has ever happened to the continent. Up until the early ’80s, more than 90% of the world export of soy came from the US. Latin and Southern America realized that they were missing out on a big opportunity, and began wide-scale soya plantation. By 2003, the combined exports from Central and South America exceeded that of the US. But where did they find the space to plant all these beans?

Soy plantations = goodbye rainforest

Well, it turns out that as soybeans caught on as a cash crop, farmers decided that soy fields were far more beneficial to them than rainforests. The result was massive deforestation, particularly of the Amazon Rainforest. In just one year, over one million hectares of Brazilian Amazon Rainforest was replaced with soya farms. Deforestation doesn’t just reduce ecological habitat for the thousands of endemic species that live there, it releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.

Furthermore, the loss of trees means less organisms helping fight global warming by using and storing CO2 in their tissues. On the plus side, activist organizations like Greenpeace have done a lot by exposing the atrocity that was occurring. They actually managed to push through a moratorium in 2008 that prevents any forest that is cleared from being used to grow soy. While this is a huge win for conservation, it doesn’t replace the millions of hectares of rainforest lost already, nor does it help the rainforest deal with the pesticides and nutrients that run off of these neighboring farms. Sadly, the moratorium is only a temporary solution to a very permanent problem.

The real question is, of course, is it better ecologically to eat soy than meat? After all, no matter how bad soy is for the environment, what people really want to know is whether it’s the lesser of two evils.

So What Diet Is Best for the Environment?

Unfortunately, the answer to that is muddy. Hands down, vegetarian diets are more efficient when it comes to acreage of land required to produce them… but that’s not the whole story. It does take less land area to produce soy than to produce cattle, chickens or pigs, so, yes, soy is better for the environment when it comes to square footage.

But quality is as important as quantity; a study from Cornell University suggests that completely cutting out meat might not be the best solution because animals like cattle can survive on land that isn’t suitable for crops, meaning poorer quality land can be used to produce livestock. In areas with poor-to-mediocre soil, for example, it’s probably more efficient to farm eggs for protein than to try growing vegetables that don’t flourish there – after all, animals can consume low-quality grain that isn’t necessarily fit for us. A recent study from the World Wildlife Fund also found that switching all of Britain’s meat eaters to tofu-eaters would require more land to be farmed in the country because of this effect.

The hot debate, however, is which produces more carbon emissions: a vegan or meat-eating diet. Despite what you might expect, the results are actually quite mixed, and it largely depends on what you eat and where it comes from.

Food sustainability often depends upon its location, thanks Andrew Ciscel on flickr

One study estimated that it takes about 14 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of milk protein on a conventional farm and a little less than 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy for an organic farm. To produce the same amount of organic soy protein takes only 0.75 calories – which seems like an easy win. But there’s a problem with the comparison: we don’t eat raw soy protein. The processing of soybeans into a consumable form, like soymilk, takes a lot of energy. Some research has even suggested that the carbon footprint of cow’s milk is less than soymilk, as the process of turning soybeans into milk is actually quite energetically expensive (not to mention making soy-burgers) – but exactly how much of a carbon impact this processing has hasn’t been thoroughly researched yet.

As it stands right now, because soy products are only a small share of the market, they are only produced in a small number of areas and often have to be shipped large distances to reach their market. Exactly how important these food miles are to a foodstuffs ecological impact isn’t well understood, but they certainly don’t make it smaller. Obviously, travel increases carbon emissions, but there are many other consequences of long-distance migration of food that are often forgotten; the ecological cost of creating roads to access remote fields, for example, which damage even fairly untouched ecosystems in the area by creating more vulnerable ecological “edges”.

In the end, the science does seem to support that soy products are better for the environment than red meat- but only barely. And choosing sustainable seafood may be better than either one of them. Even if soy wins out against all the other protein options, it’s hardly the clear-cut ecological solution it’s made out to be. Furthermore, it may not be all that healthy to eat soy as your #1 source of protein in the first place. Soy contains hormone mimics, protein-degrading enzymes and other potentially toxic or carcinogenic substances whose effects have yet to be fully evaluated in people who completely replace meat with soy.

Being Nutritionally & Ecologically Balanced

I’m sure the debate will continue to rage on, but there are some things you can do to be more eco-friendly no matter what side you’re on.

First off, eat local, no matter what it is. Transportation of foodstuffs from one place to another is an ecological cost that we can lessen greatly. If you can get vegetables grown locally from a farmer’s market or beef from a farm down the road – great. If soy is grown and processed in your area – super! Whatever is produced within a few hundred miles of you is automatically the more ecologically responsible option, and often local, smaller farms have more sustainable practices, too. It makes it much easier to do this if you plan your meals around what’s in season in your area, so you are less tempted to grab your favorite veggies when they have to be imported from fairer climates.

Secondly, know where your protein comes from even if it isn’t local, and make the best decision you can as to which ones to pick. Places like the Monterray Bay Aquarium have made it easy to choose sustainable seafood options, and you can often buy chicken and beef from somewhat local farms, even at supermarkets. If you can’t go local, go grass fed – the label requires sustainable farming practices. If you crave red meat and live in the US, maybe try bison instead of beef. Bison is lower in fat, higher in protein, and more ecologically sustainable. The prairie grasses that bison are fed on have evolved along with the bison for centuries, and both benefit from the relationship.

And thirdly, eat less all together! While a lack of protein might be a problem in developing nations, in wealthy nations like the US, we tend to eat more animal protein than we need. Heck, we tend to eat more than we need, period – that’s why upwards of 1/3 of our population is obese. Start by eating smaller meals altogether, and if you’re really hungry, have a locally-grown fruit or something as a snack. That way you can improve your diet AND help the environment at the same time!