It’s one of the most profitable crops in the United States and its beans morph into a grocery list of items including milk, flour, oil, protein and more. Highly valuable, it brings in billions of export dollars to the nation’s economy. Yet while anything green seems to get the thumbs up these days, not everyone is singing soy’s praises.
There have been rising concerns around the type of soybeans we consume. The United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] reported that approximately 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, as is a high percentage of the corn we consume and the cotton we wear.
To create genetically modified soy, scientists splice a gene from bacteria and introduce it into a soybean seed. This fortified seed is able to grow, even when sprayed with potent pesticides. Some worry that the residue of those pesticides will live on in the cells of our bodies and come back to haunt us in the form of cancer and other serious illnesses. There is also concern that there’s no separation between “church and state”: The chemical companies that manufacture the herbicides also sell the genetically modified seeds for the soy, corn and cotton crops, cashing in on both ends of the production line. On the other hand, organic soy is grown not only without use of conventional pesticides, but also without artificial fertilizers or sewage sludge, both of which are sometimes used in non-organic farming.
Dr. Michael Duffy, professor of the Agricultural Economics and Environmental Resource Economics at Iowa State University, has studied the differences between organic soybeans and their genetically modified counterparts. He’s identified slight differences in production of the two. Though genetically modified crops are becoming the industry norm, Duffy suggests that the organic beans grow just as well, and can match the yield of their GM cousins. So he says, “If there’s no difference in the returns, why are there different levels of adoption? The reason is because harvesting and handling a GM crop is so much easier for farmers.” It doesn’t have to do with the yield or the health factors, he said, it’s just the time and effort. “That’s why we’ve found such a rapid adoption [of genetically modified soybean crops],” he added.
Across the pond, the European Union [EU] has banned genetically modified foods for health and cultural reasons. Europe has a history of choosing organic products, as well as a reputation for exceptional culinary achievement, which many feel would be cheapened by the use of genetically modified foods. Only small amounts of the altered soy can be found in Britain’s food supply, whereas GM products are widely eaten in the U.S. Many ask, if the EU has said “no” to these products, why do Americans continue to produce and consume them? In part, because the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] and/or the United States Dietary Association [USDA] don’t require supermarkets to label genetically modified foods, so we often buy them without knowing exactly what we’re taking home in our shopping bags.
Irina Ermakova, a leading scientist at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), believes there’s reason for concern. In lab tests on rats, she fed some of the animals only GM soy products, while others were fed only non-GM foods. Testing began just two weeks before the rats were impregnated. When the baby rats came along, those whose mothers had been fed GM foods showed signs of growth problems and remained stunted, compared to those whose mothers had been fed only natural foods. In addition, over half of the GM-fed offspring died within three weeks.
While many argue this study is inconclusive, it left many environmentalists and health-conscious people questioning the lack of FDA requirements for testing the safety of GM foods. A biotech company can assure the FDA that a product is safe without ever having to prove it. Early on, the FDA defended its position on GM foods in a 1992 policy that stated: “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” But some say the FDA hasn’t bothered to dig very deep into the issue. In recent years, there have been fewer than 20 published studies regarding the impact of GM products on animals and none on their effects on humans, even though we eat them every day.
Despite skepticisim from some, Barbara P. Klein, PhD, believes, “It is very unfortunate that when we started genetically modifying foods, we didn’t make the public well informed of the benefits.” Professor at Illinois State University, and director of the Illinois Center for Soy Foods, Klein stated, “As far as human health goes, and consuming genetically modified foods is concerned, I am very comfortable. Where we need to be much more careful in the future is environmental consequences [with production of genetically modified crops],” added Klein, who’s PhD is in nutrition.
Mark Messina, PhD, doesn’t think GM’s anything to be alarmed about either. “To be honest, I don’t think [genetically modified soy] is a nutritional issue,” he says. He belongs to the United Soybean Board’s Speakers Bureau of Research. Messina, who’s PhD is in nutrition, as well, goes on to say, “I think people have far more important issues to contend with than purchasing organic or GM soy.” According to the doctor nearly 90 percent of the genetically modified soy grown in the US is used to feed animals, not humans. “If a consumer wants to choose a non-GM, they have a choice,” he said. Messina also noted that Silk, the most recognized manufacturer of soymilk, along with many other mainstream soy products, actually use non-genetically modified beans to create their products.
Other areas of concern include unfermented soybeans— processed into fresh tofu or soymilk—which are said to contain toxins that block the enzymes needed for us to digest protein. While scientific studies, mentioned by Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Spontaneous Healing and 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, have shown that these toxins can contribute to pancreatic enlargement, cancer and stunted growth in animals, there has been no testing to evaluate the effect on humans.
Isoflavones found in soy act as estrogen in the female body. It was once believed that the isoflavones in the soy raised the presence of estrogen to levels dangerous enough to cause breast cancer. Weil agrees that, theoretically, isolated isoflavones acting as artificial estrogen, could stimulate the growth of cancer in women, but that it is unlikely.
In fact, the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health have found just the opposite: Isoflavones’ chemical structure is much like that of our own estrogen and, because of the similarity in structure, they can actually interfere with the destructive action of our own hormones, and thereby decrease the health risks of excess estrogen. The rates of breast cancer in Japanese women are one fifth of that of U.S. women, and many believe it is because the Japanese diet consists of large amounts of soy. Research has actually shown that increased amounts of isoflavones can suppress a woman’s natural estrogen levels, reducing the risks of breast cancer. Isoflavones are also credited with taming menopausal and pre-menstrual symptoms. Many physicians recommend women consume 1-2 servings of soy per day, even those with breast cancer. “Milk” derived from soy in particular, is considered beneficial for women and men, due to its higher levels of protein and fiber as compared to regular cow’s milk.
The FDA has not evaluated appropriate doses of isoflavones, nor do they acknowledge claimed benefits. Supporters of soy isoflavones, that include nutritionists and various physicians throughout the world, recommend 1-2 servings a day, or no more than 100 mg a day. Messina added, “There is no evidence that excessive amounts [of isoflavones] are harmful. Historically few people in Japan have consumed more than 100 mg a day. So in the absence of any other kind of data, I generally use the upper limit of 100 mg. Clinical trials have actually used much larger doses and not seen any kind of negative effects.”
Even so, some argue that consuming large amounts of isoflavones has been known to trigger a thyroid condition—if one has a pre-existing condition. Additionally, soy isoflavones could potentially affect thyroid function if one’s system has low levels of iodine. This condition is rare in the U.S. due to high levels of iodine in dairy, fruits, eggs and some vegetables.
While questions linger about how healthful soy actually is, the soybean itself continues to struggle as a crop. Currently Florida, Texas, Louisiana and other soybean crops in rural areas worldwide are suffering from soybean rust, a disease caused by two different types of fungi. Once infected, the leaves develop brown spots, may show signs of bacteria and mildew. Unless proper precautions are taken, the crops will die. But this condition might lead to the introduction of even more fungicides, the residue of which can cling to the bean throughout the production process.
Recently the state of New York joined Florida, Texas, and California to draft a letter that focuses on the four states’ agricultural priorities to be considered as a part of the 2007 Farm Bill. The letter reads, in part, “We support provisions that expand support for organic products allowing our farmers to access this growing and lucrative market. To meet this increasing consumer demand for organic food, we should support farmers who have decided to use organic techniques, especially those who are transitioning to organic agriculture.”
Given the power of the pocketbook, consumers, such as Kristen Thomas, may ultimately have the last word.
“I avoid GM foods as much as possible,” she says, “as I believe there’s a danger any time one tinkers with nature. I just play it as safe as I can and make sure all of the produce I purchase is organic and/or locally grown. It’s not a sure bet, but it’s the best I can do.”
by Sonnie Gutierrez