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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear Earth Talk: How healthy is soy? I heard that, despite its healthy image, most soy is grown using chemicals like other crops and is even being genetically modified.
—D. Frinka, Syracuse, NY

Americans today spend upwards of $4 billion yearly on soy food products. Although the versatile soybean provides many health benefits, some 90 percent of the U.S. crop is grown using genetically modified seeds, engineered to withstand repeated dousing with Monsanto's herbicide, glyphosate (popularly known as RoundUp).

Photo © Timothy Valentine/Flickr

Food products made with soy have enjoyed great popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent years. Two decades ago, Americans spent $300 million a year on soy food products; today we spend over $4 billion. More and more adults are substituting soy—a great source of protein—for meat, while a quarter of all baby formula contains soy instead of milk. Many school lunch programs nationwide have added soy-based veggie burgers to their menus, as have countless restaurants, including diners and fast food chains.

And there are hundreds of other edible uses of the legume, which now vies with corn for the title of America’s most popular agricultural crop. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration promotes the inclusion of soy into other foods to cut down on heart attack risk. Clinical studies have shown that soy can also lower the risk for certain types of breast and prostate cancer.

But there may be a dark side to soy’s popularity and abundance. “Many of soy’s health benefits have been linked to isoflavones—plant compounds that mimic estrogen,” reports Lindsey Konkel in Environmental Health News. “But animal studies suggest that eating large amounts of those estrogenic compounds might reduce fertility in women, trigger premature puberty and disrupt development of fetuses and children.” But before you dump out all your soy foods, note that the operative phrase here is “large amounts” which, in laboratory science, can mean amounts substantially above what one would consume in real life.

Also at issue is that upwards of 90 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is grown using genetically modified (GM) seeds sold by Monsanto. These have been engineered to withstand repeated dousing with the herbicide, glyphosate (also sold by Monsanto and marketed as RoundUp). According to the nonprofit Non GMO Project, this allows soybean farmers to repeatedly spray their fields with RoundUp to kill all weeds (and other nearby plant life) except for the soybean plants they are growing.

The U.S. government permits the sale and consumption of GM foods, but many consumers aren’t so sure it’s OK to eat them—given not only the genetic tinkering but also the exposure to so much glyphosate. Due to these concerns, the European Union has had a moratorium on GM crops of all kinds since 1998.

The fact that genetically modified soy may be present in as much as 70 percent of all food products found in U.S. supermarkets means that a vast majority of Americans may be putting a lot of GM soy into their systems every day. And not just directly via cereals, breads and pasta: Some 98 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is fed to livestock, so consumers of meat, eggs and dairy are indirectly ingesting the products of scientific tinkering with unknown implications for human health.
Since GM soy has only been around and abundant for less than a decade, no one yet knows for sure what the long term health effects, if any, will be on the populations of countries such as the U.S. that swear by it. Natural foods stores like WholeFoods are your best bet for finding non-GM foods of all sorts.

CONTACTS: Environmental Health News; Non GMO Project.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: Our community is talking of culling local deer herd numbers. Frankly I think it’s the people who are overpopulated, crowding out every last inch of habitat. What happens when we finally do develop everything? Pow! There goes the last doe?
—Anne Williamson, State College, PA

Animal advocacy groups argue that outdated wildlife management guidelines and land management policies contribute to deer overpopulation problems. For one, since hunters mainly prize antlered males, which will mate with multiple females, a resulting ratio of eight females for every male in the wild sets the stage for a population explosion. Pictured: a female white-tailed deer and her fawn.

Photo © Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

It’s hard to believe that deer, those innocuous enough vegetarian browsers that occasionally tromp through our backyards, are considered the scourge of many a suburban neighborhood across the continent. Prior to white settlement of the “New World,” tens of millions of deer blanketed the continent, but their population density was kept in check by free-roaming natural predators such as bears, wolves and mountain lions.

The white man’s rifle took out the deer’s chief predators and did a number on deer populations as well; venison was a staple meat on the ever expanding frontier. Biologists estimate that there were only a half million white-tailed deer left in the U.S. in the early 1900s due to unregulated hunting. At that point many states jumped in and began to regulate hunting to try to conserve fast dwindling resources. The new rules set limits on when hunters could kill deer and banned hunting females altogether.

In the meantime, many of the one-time farms in the eastern U.S. began reverting back to forests, creating a habitat patchwork that in some areas was ideal for deer. The ensuing rebound of white-tailed deer populations—over 20 million roam the U.S. today—is viewed as one of the nation’s greatest conservation success stories, especially since it occurred long before the dawn of the modern environmental movement.

But there is a dark side to all this “success.” Too many deer can cause problems for humans, other wildlife, and even for the deer themselves, who must compete for dwindling forage sources. “Complaints from residents are often that the deer are eating things that they have planted,” reports the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “Well fertilized and watered landscapes and gardens can be much more desirable to the deer than surrounding common ground areas that are likely not watered or fertilized.”

Other concerns beyond tearing up suburban backyards include damage to agricultural crops, deer/car collisions, transmission of Lyme disease, and the over browsing of habitat which deer and other wildlife need. “Increasing deer densities through time can lead residents to a feeling that they have to share too much with the deer as the damage they do becomes less tolerated,” reports MDC. It’s at this point that wildlife managers begin considering culling local herds, usually by tweaking local hunting regulations.

Many animal advocates oppose such practices. In Defense of Animals (IDA) reports that even permitted sport hunting, under current wildlife management guidelines and outdated land management policies, contributes to deer overpopulation problems. “Currently, there are approximately eight does for every buck in the wild,” the group explains. “Laws restrict the number of does that hunters may kill.” Since bucks will often mate with more than one doe, the ratio of does to bucks “sets the stage for a population explosion.” And open season on both sexes won’t solve the problem, as too many does would die, stranding needy fawns and depleting the reproductive pool—as happened in the early 20th century when deer numbers fell precipitously low. IDA and many other animal protection organizations believe that sport hunting should be banned and that deer populations should be allowed to regulate naturally.

CONTACTS: MDC; IDA.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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