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They Hailed it as a Wonderfood

Soy not only destroys forests and small farmers -
it can also be bad for your health

Anthony Barnett
November 7, 2004
The Observer

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,' she says.

Anderson's 'eureka' 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.

These highly 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].

Certainly, Dr. 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.

No fragment 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.

Towering proud 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.

Located more 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.

Satellite photos 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.

'Nobody can 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.

If Argentina's 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 of soy.

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.

Unlike Argentina, 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.

In September, 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 delicate habitats.

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.

'Inside the 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.

Every weekday 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.

Perhaps the 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 tract development.'

It added: 'There exists a significant body of animal data that demonstrates goitrogenic [effect on the thyroid gland] and even carcinogenic effects of soy products.'

Sheehan was 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.

OFM contacted 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 don't know.'

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.'

What follows 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.

The findings are inconclusive. Some case studies find soy reduces the risk of one cancer, but possibly increases the risk of another.

Professor Frank 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.

US nutritionist 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,' she said.

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.

For Daniel, 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 impact.

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