They Hailed it as a Wonderfood
not only destroys forests and small farmers -
it can also be bad for your health
November 7, 2004
On a crisp winter
morning in Belfast, Dr. Lorraine Anderson was nearing the end of
her doctorate research project. She had spent weeks hunched over
a microscope looking at samples of sperm. Anderson was trying to
figure out what made some sperm move slower than others. As a specialist
in reproductive medicine at Belfast's Royal Maternity Hospital she
was particularly interested in why some samples moved so sluggishly
that they would have trouble reaching and fertilizing an egg. Anderson
knew that a sperm's 'motility' was one of the critical factors in
fertility. 'It doesn't matter how many sperm a man's got; if they
can't get from A to B then there's little chance of reproduction,'
moment arrived when a complex analysis of the samples she was working
on revealed that the seminal liquid surrounding the slower-moving
sperm contained chemicals called isoflavones. These compounds are
also known as phyto-estrogens or plant-estrogens because they
mimic estrogen, the powerful female hormone.
active compounds are found in large concentrations in soy. Indeed,
so powerful are these chemicals that a woman drinking two glasses
of soy milk a day over the course of a month will see the timing
of her menstrual cycle change. It has been estimated that infants
who are fed soy formula exclusively receive an amount of estrogen
equivalent to five birth control pills every day.
For a growing
number of scientists the question is this: if such a strong biologically
active compound is found in soy, what is its effect on humans regularly
eating or drinking products made from the bean?
In recent years the food industry has wasted no time in extolling
soy's alleged health benefits, claiming it can lower cholesterol,
help with menopausal systems, ward off osteoporosis and even reduce
the risks of some cancers. However, aside from research linking
soy to reduced male fertility, studies now link the phyto-estrogens
found in the plant to an increased risk of other types of cancer.
It has also been claimed that it damages brain function in men and
causes hidden developmental abnormalities in infants. Some even
attribute the early onset of puberty in western women to the spread
of soy in diets [this can also be attributed to cow's milk products].
Anderson has no doubt about the conclusions of her own research:
the more soy a man eats, she believes, the more difficulty he will
have in fertilizing an egg. Anderson's head of department, Professor
Neil McClure, is one of Britain's leading fertility experts and
he is already acting on the results. 'If a couple were having trouble
conceiving and the man's sperm was a borderline case, then I have
seen enough evidence from these studies to advise a change in his
diet to minimize soy.'
But this is
much easier said than done. Today, soy is no longer just the preserve
of the vegetarian or the Asian food junkie but is an invisible ingredient
in nearly everything we eat, from pork pies and breakfast cereals
to mayonnaise and margarines. Soy is used to 'bulk out' and bind
many processed foods, such as sausages, lasagna, burgers and chicken
nuggets and it allows food firms to claim a higher protein content
on the label. Some research estimates that soy is present in more
than 70 percent of all supermarket products and widely used by most
fast food chains. The reason for its rapid rise in popularity is
that it is both a very cheap source of protein and - when crushed
- a source of high-quality vegetable oil.
of the bean is wasted. Even the husk is used as a source of fiber
in breads, cereals and snacks. The oil extracted from soy is the
most consumed vegetable oil in the world, and is used in margarines,
salad dressings and cooking oils. Food labels will simply list soy
oil as vegetable oil.
During the oil
extraction, the bean also produces a substance called lecithin.
This is a valuable emulsifier that helps fat mix with water. It
is a critical ingredient of the baking and confectionery worlds,
as it prevents ingredients in food from separating. So the food
labels of many of our favorite chocolate bars, biscuits and cakes
will list lecithin as an ingredient without linking it to soy.
Of course, it
is not just the 'invisible' market in soy that has enjoyed rapid
growth. Soy milk is one of the success stories of the last few years.
Sales have rocketed by 20 percent per annum and it is now one of
the fastest growing drinks in the country. Starbucks now offers
frothed up soy milk with its cappuccinos and supermarkets have invested
in their own brands.
For those who
suffer a strong allergic reaction to cow's milk or follow a vegan
diet, soy milk has always been an important option. But others drink
it as a less fattening alternative to cow's milk. What they don't
realize is that it also gives them an injection of a chemical that
mimics estrogen. One industry source admitted that the breakthrough
for soy milk came when retailers were persuaded to put soy milk
into the chilled cabinet, giving it the illusion of being a fresh
product. Some soy milk adverts tell the reader to look for it in
the fresh food section. In reality, soy milk is no more than bean
juice with some added favoring to make it more palatable.
As well as the
growth in popularity of soy products for direct human consumption,
some 90 percent of the 200 million tons of soy produced around
the world each year is used to feed animals. Whether it's beef,
lamb, bacon or processed chicken, it is highly likely that the meat
comes from an animal reared on a diet based on soy meal. In some
parts of the world, soy has long been a small part of animal diets,
but after the BSE crisis revealed the problems of feeding cattle
with animal parts, the soy alternative was taken up with gusto.
So when you eat a piece of meat, the chances are you are also consuming
some soy as well.
like a church steeple, the 200 foot-tall silver silo in the Argentinian
town of Las Lajitas, shines in the South American sun. These huge
storage silos, filled with dried soy beans have become the new temples
of Argentina. Today's plantation owners listen to a gospel preached
by US biotech corporation Monsanto.
than 1,000 miles north west of Buenos Aires and close to the Chilean
and Bolivian borders, Las Lajitas is the agricultural capital of
a region that has seen untrammeled expansion in soy production.
Where only a few years ago thick native forests filled the landscape,
now all that stands between Las Lajitas and the Andes shimmering
on the horizon are green pastures sprouting soy.
of the region show the dramatic change. Only 15 years ago the area
appeared from space as a lush green carpet, now it resembles a threadbare
rug covered with the spreading stains of soy plantations. The figures
speak for themselves: in 1971 soy was only farmed on 37,000 acres;
now the area covered is more than 14 million acres and rising. Soy
now occupies more land in Argentina than all other crops added together,
covering more than half the country's arable land. It is predicted
that 10,000 acres of forest is being lost every year - the equivalent
of 20 football fields an hour. If this continues, in five years'
time the country's native forests will disappear completely.
It is a scenario
that is troubling conservationists. 'This is a precious habitat
that is home to many rare animals and plants. We are in danger of
losing it all in a race to feed European and Chinese chickens.,'
says Emiliano Ezcurra of Greenpeace. 'How many jaguars and toucans
will have to be killed to feed Danish pigs?'
But the campaigners
are up against some of the world's most powerful corporations who
now control the market in soy. In the mid-Nineties, with Argentina
facing an economic crisis, Monsanto stepped in with an offer of
salvation. Its message: plant our GM (genetically modified) Roundup
Ready soy beans that are much easier to grow than conventional soy,
and the money will flow in. And so it happened. For the lucky few
it has indeed been a godsend. A handful of soy barons are making
handsome profits and the government of Argentina is enjoying improved
tax revenues from exporting their soy to Europe and China.
But for many
others, the drive to cover every spare acre with soy comes at
a high price. More than 200 miles north of Las Lajitas is the small
rural Argentinian village of Pizarro. Carlo Odonez and his family
run the main store. He was made redundant from the country's largest
oil company a few years back and, with his payoff, brought his family
to Pizarro with the dream of being an organic beekeeper. Yet all
around the village, protected forest - where he hoped to keep his
hives - is being destroyed to plant soy. The community of peasant
farmers that has lived off this land for generations rearing cattle,
pigs and chickens as well as producing cheese will soon be forced
from their homes with nowhere to go.
see a future in staying here,' says Odonez, as he explains how the
loss of trees will lead to flooding and changes in the local climate.
Local people are also afraid of the mists of chemicals they have
heard are sprayed on the soy.
'We hear many
stories from other communities who have lived near the soy plantations,'
said Odonez. 'Some say they have become ill from breathing in the
chemicals they spray. Also we hear some have skin diseases.'
Worst hit by
the land clearances are the indigenous tribes that have lived for
thousands of years in the forests. The Wichi people are an aboriginal
group who still rely on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They use their
dogs to hunt wild boar in the forests and collect four different
types of honey from hollows in the trees. They make baskets and
bags from local plants and use forest flora as a source of traditional
medicine to cure their sick. Now they face extinction as their tribal
lands are ripped apart.
A mile from
one of their encampments the latest deforestation is occurring.
Giant bulldozers linked together with huge metal chains drive through
the forests literally tearing up everything in their path. The felled
timber and leaves are piled high in 1km rows as far as the eye can
see, ready to be set alight. It is hard for these people to understand
the destruction of a habitat they have lived in harmony with for
so long. 'Why is the white man destroying our lands?' asks one of
the tribal chiefs. It is difficult to explain that it's to be used
to feed animals in Europe and China.
soy revolution brought local economic benefits, perhaps there would
be less hostility. But the genius of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy
is that it allows the crop to be farmed intensively with minimal
labor. Only one worker is needed for every 400 acres compared to
more than 70 on a traditional citrus farm. By inserting a special
gene into the plant's DNA, Monsanto's scientists discovered they
could make it immune to a very powerful herbicide called glyphosate.
Farmers can then spray this over their crops once or twice a year
and everything but the soy is exterminated leaving the soy to grow
vigorously with highly profitable yields and little maintenance.
So more than 300,000 farmworkers have lost their jobs. Most head
towards the big cities like Buenos Aires or Salta to find work,
but with few skills they end up unemployed and homeless.
The story of
the soy boom in South America, is not just limited to the GM revolution
in Argentina. While other countries have not embraced Monsanto's
beans with such gusto, such is the rush to cash in on the green
gold that similar scenarios are being played out in Brazil, Paraguay
and Bolivia. The marketing men have even dubbed the region the Republic
For Brazil the
environmental consequences of non-GM soy have been as dramatic
as in Argentina. Newly released satellite imaging data has revealed
a 40 percent jump in deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforests.
The massive leap is the worst acceleration in the loss of tropical
jungle since 1995, with much of the destruction being blamed on
the illegal logging of land for soy production.
the majority of soy crops grown in Brazil are GM-free, although
parts of southern Brazil are becoming contaminated with transgenic
plants as farmers smuggle Monsanto seeds across the borders in the
belief that they are more lucrative.
the World Wide Fund for Nature published a detailed report on the
impact of soy expansion in South America. It makes depressing reading.
The WWF calculates that nearly 22 million acres of forests and savannah
in South America - an area about the size of Great Britain - will
have been wiped out by 2020. It says the crop has triggered soil
erosion, siltation of waterways, widespread use of toxic chemicals
and pesticides and road building through some of the world's most
On the main
road heading out of Las Lajitas, the slogan emblazoned on the giant
advertising billboard reads 'mejor agriculture, mejor futuro' which
translates as 'better farming, better future'. For many of the people
in South America, it is a promise that rings hollow.
soy bean you'll find the power to feed a family and feed the world.
You'll find the ability to improve health and combat diseases. You'll
find a unique combination of properties that makes the soy bean
as important to animal nutrition and industry as it is to human
health. In short, you'd find the magic in the magic bean.'
This is the
world according to a brochure published by US multinational Archer
Daniel Midlands, one of the handful of corporations along with Monsanto
that today controls the multi-billion dollar soy industry. Others
include Cargill, Bunge and Louis Dreyfuss.
morning at 8:30am the bell rings at the Chicago Board of Trade to
announce the beginning of the day's action. Dozens of brokers, wearing
their famous bright-colored jackets, wave their arms in a frenzy,
trying to make big bucks for their investment clients on guessing
what will be the future price of soy.
Today soy is
traded as an international commodity, just like oil or gold. Depending
on estimates of weather patterns, demand for animal food or general
geopolitical pressures the price will rise or fall. By the end of
the day millions will have been made or lost on these minute fluctuations.
With so many
commercial interests dependent on the continued appetite for soy
across the globe, those few telling a different story face an uphill
struggle in getting their voice heard.
most graphic illustration of this was in the US three years ago.
After a huge lobbying effort from the soy industry, the US Food
and Drug Administration agreed to issue a health claim that eating
25 grams of soy protein a day can help lower cholesterol and thus
reduce the risk of heart disease. This was a view later backed by
Britain's Food Standards Agency.
With heart disease
one of the biggest killers in the West, this is clearly a major
benefit for soy and has allowed many food companies to stamp labels
on soy products claiming they help reduce cholesterol. In such a
health and diet-obsessed culture this has been a big boost for the
soy industry. However, it is very difficult for any individual to
eat the necessary 25 grams a day of soy - this is equivalent to
five soy yogurts or three large glasses of soy milk.
Yet for two
senior food scientists who worked within the US Food and Drug Administration,
the official backing of the health claim - which ignored the impact
of plant-estrogens in soy - was potentially dangerous. In a highly
unusual move Dr. Daniel Sheehan and Dr. Daniel Doerge wrote a letter
of protest to the department of Health and Human Services at the
FDA denouncing the claim, concerned that the problems of soy consumption
were being ignored.
An extract from
their letter seen by Observer Food Monthly states: 'We oppose this
health claim because there is abundant evidence that some of the
isoflavones [phytoestrogens] found in soy demonstrate toxicity in
estrogen-sensitive tissues and in the thyroid. This is true for
a number of species, including humans. Additionally, the adverse
effects in humans occur in several tissues and, apparently, by several
distinct mechanisms...Thus, during pregnancy in humans, isoflavones
per se could be a risk factor for abnormal brain and reproductive
It added: 'There
exists a significant body of animal data that demonstrates goitrogenic
[effect on the thyroid gland] and even carcinogenic effects of soy
particularly concerned about the increasing number of babies been
weaned on soy infant formula. 'We are doing a large uncontrolled
and unmonitored experiment on human infants,' he said.
the scientists but was told they are not allowed to comment publicly
on the health risks of soy. Doerge suggested speaking to another
expert Dr. Bill Helferich, a professor of food at the University
of Illinois who has discovered a possible link between the growth
of certain breast cancer tumors that require estrogen and the chemicals
found in soy. Helferich was unwilling to comment on whether a woman
at risk of such a cancer should stop eating soy products. But, when
asked what the health implications were of increasing amounts of
soy in the Western diet, he told OFM : 'It's like roulette. We just
It is not just
across the Atlantic that the increased consumption of soy has concerned
authorities. In Britain, the Food Standards Agency commissioned
a report from its Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food to
look at the issue. Published in May 2003, and titled Phytoestrogens
and Health, the cover of this 400-page tome is illustrated with
a soy plant.
In its introduction
the report states: 'In 1940 adverse effects on fertility were observed
in animals that had been grazing on phytoestrogen-rich plants. In
the early 1980s it became clear that phytoestrogens could produce
biological effects in humans.'
is a highly complex and comprehensive analysis of every scientific
study ever carried out on the subject of plant estrogens. The scope
is immense: interaction with immune systems, central nervous systems,
thyroid glands and cardiovascular systems. It analyses evidence
for and against the impact of these soy chemicals on breast cancer,
prostate cancer, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer and lung cancer.
are inconclusive. Some case studies find soy reduces the risk of
one cancer, but possibly increases the risk of another.
Woods was the chair man of the working group that produced this
report. He is one of the country's leading toxologists and has been
a key government adviser. If anybody can be called an expert on
soy, it is him. Yet even he will not be drawn on whether the increase
in soy in Western diets is good or bad. 'We still have a lot to
learn,' he said. There is, however, one area where his mind is made
up. 'If my daughter ever asked me advice on whether she should feed
her baby on soy formula, I would say no, unless her doctor had specifically
advised her to do so.' Even if the the baby had an allergy to dairy
products, he believes that other options, such as hydrolyzed cow's
milk protein, are safer.
'Soy has been
eaten for thousands of years as a mainstay of Asian diets,' said
Dominic Dyer of Britain's soy Protein Association. 'There is no
evidence of reduced fertility in these populations or an increased
risk in any other of these problems allegedly related to soy. Indeed
the opposite is true. They are healthier, live longer and have less
chance of dying from diseases like breast cancer.'
This is a powerful
argument in soy's favor but scientists such as Professor Woods,
who studied this issue as part of the FSA's report, says it is far
more complex than just attributing these facts to the intake of
soy in their diets.
Kaayla T. Daniel who has studied the history of soy consumption
dismisses the comparison, arguing that the soy eaten in China and
Japan, such as tofu and miso, is very different from the industrially
processed variety used in today's Western food. 'Claims that soy
beans have been a major part of the Asian diet for more than 3,000
years, or from "time immemorial" are simply not true,'
The soy bean
originated in China, and according to Daniel the ancient Chinese
called it 'the yellow jewel' but used it as 'green manure' to enrich
the soil for growing other crops. She says soy did not become a
staple human food until late in the Chou Dynasty in 1134 BC when
the Chinese developed a fermentation process to turn the bean into
a paste best know by its Japanese name miso. The liquid poured off
during this production of miso is what is known as soy sauce. She
claims that the traditional process of making fermented soy products
like tofu or tempeh destroys many of the allegedly dangerous chemicals
in soy, unlike modern factory methods used today.
environmentalists and a growing number of scientists, the point
is not that soy is all bad but that neither is it the cure-all
for many Western ills. And there is certainly no escaping its environmental
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