Soybeans are one of the most prevalent commodity crops grown in North America today. At 89.1 million acres, American farmers planted more acres of soy than any other crop this year. However, most of that acreage is not producing food for humans. According to the USDA, just over 70 percent of that soy becomes animal feed. Another five percent becomes biodiesel, leaving just a quarter of the entire soy supply for human consumption. Like most commodity crops, soy primarily shows up in our food as oils, ground meals, starches, and other processed inputs.
If you remember learning about George Washington Carver and his peanuts in grade school, you may be interested to know that he also conducted experiments with soybeans in the early 20th century. He learned that soybeans (like many other legumes) add nitrogen to the soil by way of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Carver and others encouraged farmers to rotate their crops with soy every third year to produce better crops, but we now know that crop rotation leads to healthier soil too.
This practice is less common in the new world of large-scale GMO agriculture, and it’s not the only traditional farming tool we lost when chemical companies took over food production. Soy is an excellent case study of this phenomenon; let’s take a look at the ways GMO soy is connected to contemporary environmental problems in farming.
Herbicide Tolerant Soy
Nearly all soy—about 94 percent of it in the United States—is genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant (HT). Chemical companies use a type of bacteria that is naturally resistant to herbicides to create these HT crops. DNA is taken from the resistant bacteria and placed in the soy plant’s DNA to create a GMO plant that can withstand the direct application of herbicides such as glyphosate, dicamba, and 2,4-D.
The biotech industry promised HT crops would reduce herbicide use, but the reverse is true. Data from the USDA shows a fifteen-fold increase in glyphosate alone use since the introduction of Roundup-Ready crops, and glyphosate use continues to rise. Read this full study to learn more. Unfortunately, the problems with HT crops don’t end there.
Herbicide-tolerant crops including soy have also led to the rise of herbicide-resistant “superweeds”. These weeds are a function of natural selection. Broad spectrum herbicides kill off most weeds with each spraying, but the few that survive can pass their resistance on to the next generation of pests. Over many years, a clear pattern of resistance emerges. We are seeing this now, as glyphosate-resistant dogweed, ragweed, thistles, and other weeds become more common. There are at least 12 distinct types of herbicide-resistant weeds in my state—how many are there in yours?
As these weeds are already resistant to glyphosate, farmers must apply more herbicide or stronger herbicide to remove them. In such cases, the soy farmer’s weapon of choice is usually the volatile herbicide dicamba.
Dicamba and dicamba-tolerant soybeans have become increasingly prevalent since the rise of superweeds. Unfortunately, efforts to control these weeds using dicamba have caused catastrophic damage to crops across the United States. This problem caused an uproar in 2017—the first year farmers were permitted to spray dicamba “over the top” during the growing season rather than on the ground prior to sprouting. That same year, dicamba drift damaged 3.6 million acres of soybeans across 25 states, sparking outrage, litigation, and temporary dicamba bans.
After the waves of damage that ruined four percent of the nation’s soy crop, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out new rules for dicamba application such as prohibiting spraying in winds over 10mph. Despite these rules, dicamba has already damaged more than one million acres of soybeans in 2018 thus far.
The Pesticide Treadmill
When one pesticide stops working and another must take its place, this is called a pesticide treadmill. History has shown us time and again that all chemical herbicides will fail eventually.
We would be wise to remember Rachel Carson’s words from more than 50 years ago:
“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for reasons that collapse the moment we examine them.”
The impacts of GMO agriculture are far-reaching, but there is plenty of good news too. The demand for organic and non-GMO crops of all kind is on the rise—and this trend is likely to continue as big brands make the switch to non-GMO soy and grain for animal feed. While we all wait for non-GMO soy producers to catch up with the demand, we can take pride in doing our part to build and protect a non-GMO food supply for future generations. Don’t support genetically engineered soy; Look for the Butterfly when you shop!