There was a time when the soy plant was considered the world's unexpected savior: Man's appetite for meat, scientists and agricologists reasoned, could be tempered with products that resembled meat, but were fashioned from vegetables and grain. And just as importantly, it could be used to feed that livestock.
But according to a recent World Wildlife Fund report, that agricultural crop, which has grown to a billion-dollar industry across multiple sectors is taking its toll on the climate. According to a USDA Jan. 2017 press release, the number of acres cultivated for soy has been steadily growing in the U.S. and as of 2016, was up to more than 80 million acres, with the largest accumulation in Illinois.
That explosive growth of land turned to feed and food production -- which translated to more than 200 million tons of soy being produced globally in 2012 -- is having a decisive effect on wildlife, says WWF.
"The huge amount of land needed to produce protein-rich feeds such as soy is having devastating effects on species & their habitats, especially in vulnerable areas such as the Amazon, the Congo Basin & the Himalayas," the organization wrote in its newly released report, Appetite for Destruction. It estimates that more than 30 species extinctions across the globe are attributed to UK food supply demands alone.
Of course, the real problem isn't just the amount of land that is being converted to acreage for foodstock production but the demand for livestock that is overtaking forests, grasslands and other land that were once home to wildlife.
Poultry production alone has increased dramatically since the 1960s when it commanded 15 percent of the world's meat production. By 2012, the industry had more than doubled those numbers. The rationale of course was to keep up with the growing global human population's demand for nutritious food. an aim that it hasn't really been able to support in the industrialized setting, the writers explain.
"In 2014, there were over 23 billion chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl on the planet – more than three per person." It adds that while meat production has expanded to keep up with commerce and human consumption, nutritional quality hasn't. Today, explain the writers, those mass-produced chickens actually have less omega-3 fatty acids than chickens produced in the 1970s. Consumers are actually not getting the nutrition they think they are getting, and the planet's "lungs" -- those forests that help slow climate change -- are disappearing.
The good news is that there's a lot more dialogue taking shape on this issue these days than there was a few years back. Major figures like environmentalist Chris Darwin (descendant of 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin), anthropologist Jane Goodall, DBE, and marine biologist Katherine Richardson are just a few of the experts that are speaking out on the inevitable impact that the livestock and feed industry will have on the world's ecology. And consumers are beginning to listen harder.
The bad news, says the UN, is that the window is closing to be able to protect the earth's top soil, which supports 95 percent of the food we eat, says Maria-Helena Semedo, deputy-director of natural resources for the Food and Agriculture Organization.
According to Semedo, about a third of the earth's soil has been degraded, either by pesticides, deforestation (which encourages soil erosion) or climate change. That loss will continue to affect not only food production but the planet's ability to sustain its ecology. The use of intensive farming and livestock production, which relies on chemical sources for pest management is being blamed as the root of the problem that is now becoming more evident through the effects of global warming.
Ongoing research into ways to reinfuse the earth's soil with microbes may give agrologists a way of heading off a loss of this valuable resource, which scientists say may be in peril in the next five decades.
In the meantime, environmental advocates like WWF are working to heighten consumers' awareness of the impact that the world's appetite for meat is having on the environment. They have developed a short list of pointers about ways that people can directly lobby for change: eat more vegetables and grains, less sugar and salt (the essentials to processed foods) and eat foods that are certified to standards like organic, free range and fair trade. Scientists are also advocating changes in how crops are grown, with ideas that pretty much echo the way our ancestors first fertilized their fields.
But if there is anything to be learned from intensive farming (and Mother Nature's own responses) it's that developing crops that are meant to solve the planet's insatiable demand for food may not be an exclusive answer. Balance between the resources we use and the methods we choose in the process, may be the key to a healthy planet.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.