Copyright Natalie Dee: Soybean Dreams
Last month, I went to a seminar about soybeans. Essentially, it was not so much about soybeans themselves as what we can do with soybeans to suit our needs. At every new slide, I was reminded just how broken our agriculture system is. It was very hard to listen to. Being in a room full of people studying “agriculture,” I could see heads nodding. People were impressed. They want to know how to improve yield, how to improve nutritional value of corn and rice, how to grow soybeans anywhere (even in winter) — i.e. how to make a given crop “better” instead of diversifying.
At every one of these seminars, I hear about how the human population will reach 9 billion by 2050. We’ll solve “the 9 billion people problem” by making more crops with less land. We’ll find out what makes the building blocks of a crop plant and rearrange them to our benefit. This is clearly the answer, rather than not reaching a 9 billion population to begin with (something I also mentioned here). This kind of short-sightedness and narrow thinking drives me up a tree. Monocropping seems like such a terrible, terrible model: nobody can survive on corn/rice/soybean alone (or even primarily). And if we use all our land for a select few crops and cram the livestock into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), we’re not leaving ourselves with many options. It might solve the problem for tomorrow (at least in terms of volume), but what about farther down the line?
For soybean, people are working on how to make it more nutritious while lowering its allergen content so they can maintain its use in food. Soy is a legume, which makes it an important cover crop, so I can understand why it’s grown. And if a cover crop can produce something edible, that’s even better, right? But now soy is in everything. It might be an emerging allergen because it’s in everything, but the solution is obviously not to remove soy from everything. Instead, we need to modify the soy to get rid of the allergen.
And so begins the brokenness. For the first part of the seminar, the speaker talked about modifying soy in a general sense: is it possible to increase the total protein content of soy? (No.) Is it possible to change the composition of proteins, as long as total content is unchanged? (Yes.) This gives us a way to “build” a soybean to our liking, which will contain more proteins that are nutritionally valuable to us while decreasing proteins that we don’t care about. Why? Why not just look for an alternative? Why do we need to “fix” this at all? And from a more ethical standpoint, at what point does something like this no longer become a soybean?
For the second part of the seminar, the speaker talked about allergenic proteins. It is possible to decrease allergenic protein expression in a transgenic plant (though other proteins will have increased expression to compensate, since total protein content is still a fixed value). However, since getting GMOs through the FDA screening process is very time- and money-intensive, the speaker instead decided to screen a whole lot of natural (organic) varieties to see which produced the least amount of this particular allergen. Scientifically, this is valid. Ethically, it seems valid. But the speaker’s attitude was so condescending towards organic farming (“Why don’t they just accept GMOs already?”) that I really, really wish it were not representative of the field as a whole. People in my department love GMOs. They can produce nutrients that we’re deficient in (e.g. Golden Rice). They can produce their own pesticides (e.g. Bt-anything). They can produce their own herbicides (e.g. RoundUp-Ready anything). But in terms of big picture, I feel more and more that the general populace might be right on this one. GMOs aren’t going to save us, and I wish scientists like this seminar speaker would 1. stop pretending GMOs are The Answer, 2. think about some of the outcomes aside from “more food” or “better food,” and 3. think about the bigger picture. Again, why are we modifying these things? Why modify one crop when we could just diversify?
For the third part of the seminar, the speaker talked about incorporating vaccines and antibiotics into the total protein content of soybeans. Soy is a common component of animal feed (which is still ugh), and so many animals are now raised in CAFOs that it’s easier for disease to spread and affect a larger population. Obviously, the solution is not to change the model of feeding operation: it is to modify the feed to automatically include vaccines and antibiotics to prevent or patch up disease. At this point, I was close to walking out. It just seems so ludicrous to me that this is going to be our grand, smart, science-based solution. Actually, it offends me. We can do better than this.
For the fourth and final part of the seminar, the speaker talked about a new legume crop which could be grown in snow, since “all that land is just going to waste” during the winter. Land is never going to waste. Viewing land solely as a means to produce something is archaic and short-sighted. For the speaker (and most people in my department), it all comes down to yield and production: increasing our benefits as much as possible. But all benefits have a cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Any ecologist or evolutionary biologist can tell you that. Even Robert Heinlein can tell you that, for goodness sake.
The main things I took away from the seminar were not at all the main points the speaker wanted to make (that soybeans contain a fixed amount of protein; that we can make soybeans that tailor to our needs; that we should be growing crops year-round to increase land use). The main things I took away were, instead, reflective of how broken our agricultural system is:
1. Why do we insist on using the same few crops on so much of our land? I understand that equipment is expensive, and that equipment is set up to harvest one (or a few) types of crops. But if we instead diversify what we grow, even if it’s just a little bit, we can have a more nutritionally complete diet while boosting biodiversity and facilitating formation of a greater number of ecological communities.
2. Why do we insist on “fixing” those crops if we start to find a problem with them? Again, the answer may be to look elsewhere instead of at the same plants we’ve been using for years. If we need more vitamin A in our diets, why are we adding it to rice? Why don’t we reserve some land for carrots or pumpkins or leafy greens instead?
3. Similarly, why do we insist on “fixing” the disease in CAFOs via vaccines and antibiotics, rather than taking the livestock out of the situation in the first place? I get that land is a hot commodity, especially with our growing population, but I am not convinced that growing acres upon acres of corn is a better use of land than fields for beef or chickens. Livestock provides more nutrients than corn, and they deserve more respect (and a more natural life) than they’re getting.
4. We have become so focused on a few problems (e.g. one type of nutrient deficiency, one allergenic protein in one major crop, one symptom of feeding operations) that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.
5. “Unused” land is not “wasted” land. It’s still land. Just because it is not currently producing a crop for humans doesn’t make it any less valid or any less deserving of your respect.
Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t want to see anyone starve, and I realize that more people will need more food. But the problem is not that we don’t have enough corn, or soy, or wheat, or whatever. The problem is that we keep looking at one crop at a time and try to fix that one crop, instead of looking at other options. If we keep up this extremely narrow view, we’re not going to be able to support ourselves, and we’re definitely not going to be helping the planet.