Conflict Soy: if you think soy is a healthy alternative to the meat and dairy industry, think again

Featured image: Combine harvesters crop soybeans during a demonstration for the press, in Campo Novo do Parecis, Brazil, on March 27, 2012.  By

By  / Intercontinental Cry

Soy has become quite fashionable as a “wonder food.” Praised for its nutritional values, soy has the highest protein content of any bean making it a favorite among vegans, animal defenders and even young hipsters who swear by their morning soy latte. For many, however, soy is an ethical and political choice. By switching to soy, we get to spare our bodies and the planet from the harmful effects of the meat and dairy industry, its extensive use of antibiotics and its heavy contribution to the ever-growing climate crisis.

The problem is, soy production is a veritable criminal enterprise. The impressive bean that so many of us love is grown by multinational corporations that poison soil and water with toxic agrochemicals. What’s more, the bean is a Monsanto genetically modified crop the full impacts of which are still unknown. Soy is also used extensively by livestock producers alongside genetically modified corn as a base for animal feed. On top of this toxic burden, the soy agribusiness industry expropriates Indigenous Peoples. Also it destroys forests. And, like the meat and dairy industry, it’s fueling the climate crisis.

Let’s take a closer look at these four interrelated reasons why we need to move away from soy, in its many forms.


Growing soy requires vast extensions of land. In fact, it requires so much land that  soy monoculture a leading factor in the destruction of the world’s biodiversity. Soy farms now cover more than one million square kilometers of the world – the total combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The soy agriculture industry is having an especially devastating impact in Amazonia but also in the Cerrado and the Chaco. Almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million in Brazil alone, the world’s leading soy producer.

Compounding this rampant devastation, when forests are transformed into farmland, soil quality deteriorates, leading to increased pollution, increased flooding and increased sedimentation that can clog waterways. This can cause a significant decline in fish populations and other life. Agrochemical residues degrade soil even further, along with the local water table and natural processes such as pollination. Such loss of biodiversity is a key factor of climate change.


The expansion of soy is made possible through land grabbing and by provoking land conflicts. Indigenous Peoples are often the main victims of this expropriation and dispossession and are often forced into urban poverty as a result. Indigenous resistance, however, is brutally repressed.

In Brazil, the Kaiowá-Guarani peoples have denounced over three hundred assassinations. Indigenous peoples defending their land are being killed by private militias hired by large soy corporations like Raizen, Breyfuss, Bunge, Syngenta and the French-Swiss Louis Dreyfus Commodities. “The soy you consume is stained with Guarani Kaiowá blood,” said Valdelice Veron, the daughter of cacique killed by a soy producer in 2003.

One emblematic case was the brutal homicide of a young leader in the state of Mato Grosso in 2014. Marinalva Kaiowá was stabbed 35 times only two weeks after defending the demarcation of Guyraroká lands in a court ruling at the federal Supreme Court in Brasilia. Her killing is, unfortunately, no exception. It is emblematic of a larger massacre. The Kaiowá-Guarani have a homicide rate nearly 500 times higher than the Brazilian average, exceeding that of countries at war.

One in two assassinations of Indigenous peoples in Brazil is related to the expansion of soy. The state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the world’s largest producer of soy, concentrates nearly 55 % of indigenous homicides in Brazil. Historian Marcelo Zelic told a special parliamentary commission that the state accounted for 377 of the 687 recorded cases of Indigenous peoples killed between 2003 and 2014. In other words, the state at the heart of soy’s agribusiness has a rate of Indigenous homicides three times higher than all other Brazilian states together.

Soy expansion is also forcing Indigenous peoples into smaller territories. There are 24 Indigenous territories in Mato Grosso do Sul, but lands for non-Indigenous peoples is 4 inhabitants per sq kilometers, 96 per sq/km for Terena Indians, and 34 per sq/km for the Guarani-Kaiowá.

The expansion of soy on Indigenous territories is feeding a devastating death toll and governments are often accomplice. In Brazil, Congress pleased the soy sector with a new bill (PEC 215) facilitating the redefinition of previously demarcated Indigenous territories into farmland. The law, accused of being unconstitutional, was designed to pursue an even more aggressive expropriation of Indigenous lands in Amazonia.


Make no mistake. Soy is a massive commercial enterprise that is controlled by a few major landowners and corporations that don’t have our best interests at heart. In Brazil, many farms average 1,000 ha and some reach 50,000 ha (for the soccer aficionados out there, that is about 70,000 soccer fields). In Argentina, the world’s third producer after the USA, soy has replaced small farming, provoking rural migration to the cities and the disappearance of small towns in the Chaco region.

There are no labor benefits either. Since land is concentrated into the hands of few, mechanization drastically reduces farm jobs. When there is labor, it is prone to abuse. For instance, Greenpeace has documented workers being duped into coming to ranches where their papers are taken away and they are forced to work in soy farms.


Most soybeans are genetically modified to tolerate agrochemical farming, which means they are not only nutritionally inferior but also contain toxic chemicals. While there is little scientific data available on the physiological impacts of GMOs on the human body, GMO soy production is dependent on the heavy use of chemicals that poison our bodies and the environment. A study in Brazil’s Mato Grosso, for example, tested 62 samples of breast milk and found traces of one or more toxic agrochemicals in each and every sample. Not surprisingly, a documentary investigating the impacts of growing soy in South America to feed factory farms in Europe is called Killing Fields.

Monsanto crops have poisoned Argentina. The country’s entire soy crop is genetically modified which has skyrocketed the need for agrochemicals. Today, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what farmers in the U.S. rely on. The arrival of Monsanto crops brought birth defects and high rates of cancer among the rural population. But it doesn’t end there.  Argentina  exports most of its soy to Europe. If you live in Europe, chances are your morning soy latte and that tasty slice of in-house tofu cheesecake you had at lunch is made with Monsanto crops farmed in Argentina.

It’s almost impossible to avoid GM soy these days. Since it was first introduced in 1996, GM soy now dominates the industry comprising some 90% of all soy production. Countries like Argentina and the United States rely almost entirely on GM soy. More than a few local organic soybean businesses have collapsed because their soybeans were allegedly accidentally contaminated with patented strains of GM soy. Some claim that just 0.1% of world production is certified organic soy.

Soy is everywhere and we often eat it without our knowledge or consent. The overwhelming majority of the global soy production (80%) goes to feed animals, especially chickens and pigs, which means we are eating it too. The same goes for dairy products, since soy is also used in cattle feed. Soy is also the second most consumed oil in the world (after palm oil). If you check the labels in your kitchen cupboards you’re bound to find it.

It’s laudable to boycott the global cattle industry for its many harms to the earth, but we cannot reject one contaminating industry to endorse another. That is, unless our goal is to perpetrate a fraud at the expense of Indigenous Peoples, ecosystems and our own bodies.

If that’s not the sort of thing you can stomach we have no choice but to go conflict free. It’s not easy; but, then, nothing good in life ever is.

30 thoughts on “Conflict Soy: if you think soy is a healthy alternative to the meat and dairy industry, think again”

  1. And soy ist mostly, more than 90 percent, used for feeding animals. For meat and milk. So if you think soy isn’t an important alternative to the meat and dairy industry for all, that can’t let milk and meat(-alternatives) completly go, think again, please!

    But better without soy, meat and milk. Sure.

    1. YES!! I appreciate the enlightening and informative article, but to single out plant-based consumers in the intro is vastly unbalanced. Meat eaters are infinitely, even if indirectly, more responsible for the soy industry.

    2. Soy-fed and grain-fed beef and dairy are not only not the only way, they are not remotely optimal. Grass-fed, grass-finished beef is better for the animals, the environment, and human health. The animals live a healthy, natural life and have a quick and painless death (if done right); carbon is sequestered in the soil as fertility is added and habitat is maintained for wildlife as well, promoting biodiversity; eating the animals and not the soy or grains yields better nutrition for the humans. This is all scientifically demonstrable, no ideology required.

  2. This article reveals that 80% of soy is used for animal feed. Therefore, not eating meat will reduce overall soy consumption. If most people, like myself, replace meat with many protein sources, of which soy is only a very small part (maybe one or two meals a month), human consumption as a meat alternative is likely to not raise the level of soy production at all and it should, in fact drop. The problem is, besides its use as animal feed, there is a growing use for soy products in industry. Instead of trying to paint soy as the devil, maybe acknowle the fact that giving up meat for the occasional soy-based meal is not
    such a bad idea.

    1. 30% of every soybean is a carbohydrate meaning 30% is sugar. Sugar is fattening……meat is nothing but protein and good saturated fats. The problem is that the average human body only needs about 60 grams of proteins (non exercisers) and 120-200 grams a day for those that do exercise. From what I’ve posted above we as humans eat way to many carbs and proteins alone and not enough fats. There was a point in time when I shed 88 pounds by eating a pound of butter a day, limiting my carbohydrates 20 less than 20 grams and my proteins to 80 grams. So my calorie intake was somewhere around 5000 +/- daily depending on exercise. Let me tell you, I still follow the same rules today, having established ideal weight. Keeping everything the same as above except for my fat intake which is 2now 200 grams a day. So the alternatives to a healthy life are out there, one just has to do a bit of research and wade through the corporate brainwash.

  3. Sorry, but this is a completely pointless article. The vast majority of soy is fed to animals, if that weren’t the case and it was only consumed by humans then we would only need to grow a fraction of what we currently do. Growing less would mean less deforestation, deaths among indigenous populations, and less need for Monsanto GM seeds. Once again, this is an issue created by the ignorant meat eating masses, who then seek to devalue dairy and meat alternatives in any way they can. The worst thing is, people will actually believe some of this stuff. What a load of old shit, you guys should be ashamed of yourselves.

    1. The 80% figure is misleading as often (as in the majority) is only fed to animals after oil has been removed for human consumption and animals get the left over. If it wasn’t fed to animals it would be dumped.

  4. I wish this article cited references. It makes a lot of claims. I’d feel inclined to share it, if it read less like a personal declaration.

  5. In Europe, or at least in Denmark, most of the soy is organic. Hopefully Monsanto hasn’t byen around there.

  6. If 80% of soy is used for animal feed, then the solution is simple:

    GO VEGAN and eat sustainable, non GMO soy.

  7. Notice, the author does not defend the practice of feeding soybeans to livestock, only analyzes the impact of soy production. The mere mention of soy has a connotation of sustainability, which is easily disproved, as this article demonstrates. Any diet predicated on the consumption of annual crops (by people or by livestock) isn’t sustainable, because annuals such as soybeans and wheat deplete topsoil and require chemical inputs (fertilizers and herbicides and so on) derived from fossil resources. So a vegan diet, even though it’s less consumptive in the short term, can’t be called “sustainable” either. The only diet that is sustainable is one based on perennial polycultures (prairie and forest) and their animal intermediaries. These perennial polycultures are being destroyed, and soybean cultivation is a big reason why.

    1. I totally agree with you: grassland and grazing animals are proving to be the solution. Several hubs around the world have successfully restored biodiversity where once were arid lands, why don’t we hear more on that? Unfortunately people have blinkers, they watch a couple of “documentaries” and think they understood everything about nutrition and environment. If their irresponsible behaviour were damaging only themselves I would even let them do, unfortunately it is damaging everybody. With this I am not defending CAFOs and soy/grain fed animals, on the contrary: that has definitely been the biggest mistake we’ve ever done in the last 150 years. I am defending holistic managed livestock. A grassland is sequestrating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere 365 days per year, a crop is a sterile martian-looking wasteland for most of the time, we need more prairies, not more crops of soy, chia, quinoa, hemp or whatever is fashionable now. I have hard time explaining this simple concept to green intellectuals.

      1. Mate, I don’t think you can label people who abstain from animal products as being irresponsible or “having the blinkers”, when the vast majority of the population is contributing to the factory farm disaster in complete ignorance of the consequences. At least the vegetarians/vegans are trying to do something about it, regardless of your opinion on whether it is the right or wrong thing to do.

        1. Agreed, vegans at least are trying to do something: in fact I don’t blame the good intentions, I blame the dogmatic approach that makes them systematically ignore alternatives that are better than what they propose, because they don’t fit in their vision.

  8. Wrong, How are you coming to the conclusion that a diet entirely devoid animal products not more sustainable long term? It can be easily proven to use up to 50 times less land and resources. The data is everywhere.

    You actually think its better to eat free range grass feed livestock?! That is the absolutely least efficient means of producing food possible. Why do you think factory farming does the opposite. Because its cheaper, faster and uses less resources to feed cattle corn and soy, from huge mono crop fields than it is to pasture them.

    500lbs of boneless trimmed beef on one acre of high productivity grassland, or 40,000 lbs of sweet potatoes. Or thousands of pounds of soybeans.

    In three seconds I found this chart:

    It shows soy being 20 times more protein per acre to eat directly, than to feed it to cattle and then eat the cattle. 20 times!

    You are literally promoting the continued the destruction of our lands and resources by insinuating we should be eating the least efficient and most energy intensive foods possible over the direct plant based alternatives.

    If you want to help the planet, Eat plants entirely on 10% of the land we are using now, turn the other 90% into forests. If I am wrong it should be easy to prove. You simply cannot overcome the 10-100X loss of energy/calories by using animals as machines to process our food for us. In almost all cases the incorporation of animals results in a 10-100X increase in raw Inputs. How can you even begin to believe this is at any point more ‘sustainable’.

    1. We are not proposing the distruction of lands, but the restoration of it through holistic livestock management. The opposite of what agriculture does (both when the crop is used to feed people or animals). Grazing animals mimic nature, agriculture is exactly the opposite of what happens in nature and as we can see, nature is already starting to present a very salty bill.
      The weakness of CAFOs is that they are based on agriculture, the solution is not to replace them with agriculture. It would be like saying that if my problem is irony, I can make things better by being sarcastic.

    2. I agree with Alex’s response. I would also add that it’s a mistake to try to grow food as “efficiently” as possible for humans. That will only lead to increased human population growth. The real solution is to grow food in ways that coexist well with the other lives with whom we share our land.

      There’s nothing wrong with a single human needing many acres of land, if those acres can also support a diversity of life. As we’ve seen with agriculture, feeding a human “efficiently” from an intensive patch of land devoted to that human leads to population growth, soil destruction, and the need to expand into new areas.

      There’s no such thing as “less sustainable” or “more sustainable.” If a practice gives back to the land more than it takes, it is sustainable. If not, it’s not. You’re talking about harm reduction, where consuming less of an agricultural crop is less bad than consuming more. But it’s still bad, and unsustainable. We need to adopt completely different subsistence models.

      This ties in to the analysis by Deep Green Resistance that we need to dismantle civilization and replace it with truly sustainable cultures rooted in their local landbases.

      1. > we need to dismantle civilization

        I never meant to go that far, but there is some through in what you say: basically every past civilization that heavily based its survival on crops had a downfall, often as a consequence of soil destruction, think for example of the sumerians who, in their last annuals, complained about their lands becoming more and more “salty”. In order to maintain a crop you need to irrigate it, and so use water that is likely coming from rivers or lakes (and hence mineralized). This is not what happens in nature: grasslands can stay healthy with rain alone.

  9. WHAT?!

    Look, the 4 points this article makes are fairly true… but the conclusion and title are utterly wrong! This is not acceptable.

    The article doesn’t prove that soy is a bad alternative to meat and dairy: it proves that it’s an issue THE WAY IT IS PRODUCED TODAY BY THE INDUSTRY! And guess what: it is produced this way TO FEED CATTLE!!! Almost all of it is used as food by the meat and dairy industry.

    Cereals (among which soy) and leguminosae are an EXCELLENT alternative to meat and dairy!!!… if it is produced well, more locally, without GMOs or deforestation, and in much lower quantities than today.

    Please change your conclusion and title, at least, not to convey the wrong ideas. People who read you quickly (or who’ll just read the title – you know they exist) will deduce that it’s better to keep eating meat and dairy and this will precisely perpetuate the destructive system you describe here.

    1. Hi Arthur,

      Agriculture always requires setting back succession. That may mean deforestation, plowing of prairies, or draining of wetlands; or it may simply mean preventing already damaged land from healing itself. Besides places such as river floodplains with natural annual disturbance, annual cropping simply can’t be practiced in a way compatible with improved soil and increased biodiversity.

      As discussed in the comments above, we as an environmental movement shouldn’t be aiming for harm reduction. Doing less damage to the earth (such as by eating grains and soy directly instead of feeding them to livestock) is an inadequate solution to the planet’s multiple crises caused or exacerbated by agriculture. A doctor wouldn’t tell a lung cancer patient accustomed to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day that smoking half a pack is a “healthy alternative.” The patient needs to quit. And we need to abolish agriculture altogether, replacing it with perennial polycultures which build soil and biodiversity.

  10. That article show that, even with the best intention in mind, as long you follow the rules of our society, you will loose. The vegans want to stop exploitation of any kind and are using the exploitation of the animals as a tool to do that. Until now, the only large scale result was the creation and the development of a new industry: the vegan food industry. Israel is the leader of that industry.

    The problem is not the vegan peoples, the problem is the limits of the political action into the capitalistic industrial society: if we follow the rules, our revendications will be absorbed and distorted by the capitalistic industrial complex to be in fine transformed into some kind of industrial products.

    That show one more time than the real and only choice we have left is not about to vote for the left or the right, it is not about to eat meat or vegan, to buy that or this, it is about resistance or collaboration.

  11. I generally agree with this article, but No. 4 is so inaccurate it’s just plain wrong. The problem in No. 4 is not soy, it’s genetic engineering and pesticide use. If you buy organic soy, you eliminate these problems. Soy products are not per se unhealthy. Japanese women comprise the longest living group of people on Earth, and they eat a lot of tofu. While I don’t care for tofu myself and consider it just another processed food — much better to just eat beans and nuts — you can’t correctly or honestly say that soy per se is unhealthy.

    Also, I’d like to start seeing some articles here about the great harms caused by the grazing industry. Forests are being destroyed to graze cattle, and the grazing industry has done more harm to the western U.S. than any other industry. Beef is by far the most harmful food you can eat, regardless of the harms caused by soy cultivation.

  12. Re Jeff’s comment on beef: The specific dangers of beef were addressed last week by a medical panel I happened to catch on TV. They said eating beef changes the bacteria in your intestinal ecology, leading to blocked arteries from calcium deposits,
    memory loss, and long term kidney damage.

  13. @Mark E Behrend
    My comments and concerns are for the natural environment, which is destroyed by the grazing of non-native animals such as cattle, and by the actions of the grazing industry such as logging and killing of native wildlife. If people want to eat unhealthy food like farmed meat, that’s their choice and I’m not concerned with that food’s health effects. As adults we have at least some responsibility to learn which food is healthy and which isn’t.

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