Are GMO soybeans another “New Coke (TM)” It’s midnight in the garden of good and evil, and I’m not sure anyone really knows beans.
After 40-ish years of being told that soybeans are very good for me, I am being told that they are now very bad for me, specifically because so many of them are GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Being the stickler that I’ve been taught to be (and being interested in crop-plant genetic IP), I went looking for reliable primary sources.* I found out:
- In the US. about 94% of the planted soybean acreage was given over to GMO strains in 2011 – up from about 9% in 1996. Well, that just means the US crop has gone largely GMO; no more. no less.
- However, “[n]inety-eight percent of the soybean meal produced by U.S. farmers is fed to animals such as pigs, cows and chickens.” That means all the GMO soy could be going for animal feed, in which case vegetarian consumers of US soy products could just be getting non-GMO soy. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a fact, just that it’s possible. As an analogy, consider “This garage is big enough for that truck to fit inside;” it’s not the same as being able to say “That truck IS inside this garage,” but it does eliminate the argument that “That truck CANNOT POSSIBLY BE inside this garage.”
- Soybeans for human consumption, including as tofu or soy-milk, are from a different family of cultivars (“vegetable” or “garden” cultivars) than soybeans for oil production (“field” cultivars). Vegetable cultivars are much more expensive to grow in large quantity because mechanical combine harvesters shatter the pods, and because they often must be harvested before reaching maturity which does not produce viable, “saveable” seeds for the following year. Besides, vegetable cultivars are known to have very few problems with weeds or pests. The particular cultivars used in “soyfoods” are produced in boringly low volumes and and nothing about them “is broken” that GMOs could “fix.” These are two other strong suggestions that soyfoods are unlikely to be GMO. In our truck/garage analogy, we now see some tire tracks of about the right type leading to the garage door.
- Compared to non-GMO soybeans, GMO soybeans require less pesticide for the same yield and are more adaptable to no-till agriculture. Gosh, that sounds kind of green.
- Lest any single strain of soy “take over,” the USDA maintains “a collection of over 10,000 accessions of soybean seeds.”
- Last July, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready (TM) strain, the most common and longest-established GMO bean, “ is as safe as its conventional counterpart with respect to potential effects on human and animal health and the environment in the context of its intended uses.” This is particularly interesting because it was the EU’s previous fussiness about GMOs that convinced many Americans that something must really be wrong with them (the GMOs, that is).
- As far back as 2003, Oxford researchers concluded “Current GM crops, including soybean, have not been shown to add any additional allergenic risk beyond the intrinsic risks already present. . . Biotechnology has been used to remove a major allergen in soybean demonstrating that genetic modification can be used to reduce allergenicity of food and feed.” The UK has been presented as spearheading the no-GMOs movement in the EU, but this casts at least a shadow of doubt.
- The “Soy Bad” articles on many of what I’ll (with all the charity I can muster) call “opinion sites” seem to focus on the badness of ALL soy, not GMO soy as distinct from non-GMO soy. This even includes a “soy bad” article from a site called “Genetically Modified Foods, The Silent Killer.”** Some authors conditioned the badness on processing or non-fermentation (i.e., a type of “lack of processing.”)*** Several are dedicated to soy’s suboptimality as baby formula,**** including one that says it’s turning little boys gay. Ohhh-kayyyy. . . Most of the worries about GMOs in particular is “nobody knows what they’ll do long-term,” NOT “there is evidence that GMOs are unhealthier to consume than regular soy and here it is.”
Meanwhile, many, many producers of vegetable-cultivar soybeans and the associated products say they now use only “identity-preserved”***** non-GMO beans (predictably their product is more expensive, but don’t you just feel better now?). Monsanto, the producer of Roundup-Ready and other GMO beans, has even jumped on the bandwagon! Recall that from the references above, it’s entirely possible that most or all of the vegetable cultivars used in soyfoods never were GMO in the first place.
To me, this whiffs suspiciously of the “New Coke (TM)” marketing game.****** For those too young to remember, that one goes like this:
- Take a popular product.
- Introduce a new version and quit producing the old one.
- Make sure the consumers who loved the old product the most will hate or fear the new one.*******
- When the black market for the old one shows sufficient profit to finance its own space program, grudgingly-but-magnanimously re-introduce the old product to a public who will be too relieved-and-exhilarated to notice, e.g., a higher price or any other side effect you’d like to sneak in.
- A redacted article, “Coke Produces Carbon Monoxide!” went viral.
- Redacted was the explanation that the article was actually about small-c “coke,” the derivative of coal used in making CO-containing “producer gas,” and not Coca-Cola(TM) at all.
- A bunch of people quit drinking Coca-Cola (TM) to avoid the in-fact-nonexistent threat of carbon monoxide.
- The Coca-Cola Co. introduced a “testing and certification program” GUARANTEEING that their soft drink would not produce carbon monoxide. . . and passed the costs along to consumers who were grateful to be protected.
*E.g., articles with titles like “GM-Soy: Destroy the Earth and Humanity for Profit” did not make the first cut.^ Oh, P.S.: Any site that pops a “Give me all your contact info and Subscribe Now!!!” window up in my face, before I have a chance to skim even one paragraph, I rebuttably presume not to be a reliable primary source. Just sayin’.
**Wherein, the author writing about beans missed a golden opportunity to incorporate the phrase “Silent but Deadly.”
***At least one fairly scholarly-looking paper concludes that fermented soy is better for digestive flora than unfermented soy. This is distinct from “fermented soy is healthy but unfermented soy would just as soon kill you as look at you.” And it also doesn’t say anything about GMO vs. non-GMO.
****Thankfully this is not a law review article, so I can say things like “Well, du-uh.”
*****Confusingly abbreviated “IP!” This will probably hurt the producers’ case with the particular consumer sector convinced that any plant with a patent, trademark, or copyright^^ is bound to kill us all. And because of the multiple language-and-logic barriers involved, neither side may ever figure out where the problem started. Unless they read this blog, of course.
******Coca-Cola(TM) is an IP wonder. Its formula is possibly the most successful trade secret in the world.
*******Humans’ built-in change-resistance Gripe-O-Matic may do most of the job for you if you calculate the type of change well enough.
^I mean, if I were to destroy the earth and humanity it would at least be for FUN and profit.
^^No, I don’t believe it’s possible to copyright a plant (as distinct from a picture, sculpture, poetic description, or interpretive dance about one). Others apparently believe it is.