Did you know about 75% of U.S.-grown soy ends up in livestock feed or biofuel? In foods made for human consumption, soy mostly appears as highly processed oils, ground meals and starches with little nutritional value. However, the growing world of plant-based food and alternative proteins offers the humble soybean a chance to shine. Soy's high-quality protein is a major player in staple foods such as tofu, tempeh and other alternatives to animal-derived foods.
Soy has a lot to offer in a plant-based diet, particularly if it's non-GMO. More than 95% of U.S.-grown soy is genetically modified, which is why the Non-GMO Project considers soy a high-risk crop. Plus, some GMO developers are using biotechnology and soybeans to create new and unusual products.
Let's take a look at how the biotech industry is using GMO soy in plant-based foods.
Soy burgers and superweeds
Most GMOs are engineered to withstand weedkillers, which often leads to a dramatic increase in weedkiller application. Research shows that farmers spray GMO crops up to 10 times more than non-GMO crops, and all those extra spray days add up. Since "Roundup Ready" GMOs with resistance to the weedkiller glyphosate entered the market, glyphosate use in the U.S. has increased 15-fold.
Over time, glyphosate overuse leads to "superweeds" that have developed immunity to the weedkiller. Frustrated farmers then turn to even more toxic formulations. For example, in 2016, agrichemical company Monsanto-Bayer released GMO soy with resistance to dicamba, a notoriously volatile weedkiller known to drift off-target. When soy farmers sprayed their fields with dicamba, the drift destroyed millions of acres of neighboring crops, causing massive economic and ecological damage.
Soy is a common ingredient in many plant-based products (think veggie burgers with soy patties or other protein alternatives such as tofu, tempeh and soy-based dairy products). Seeking out non-GMO options helps support more sustainable farming — with less weedkillers and less collateral damage.
Is this new GMO technique "synbio on steroids"?
Weedkiller resistance is a common trait in early GMOs. Many "first generation" GMOs that entered the market in the 1990s-2000s used foreign DNA to make commodity crops such as soy, corn, cotton, and canola herbicide-tolerant or pest-resistant. Today, there are new generations of GMOs made with emerging techniques entering the food supply, unlabeled and unregulated. New GMO techniques such as synthetic biology and molecular farming can turn a living organism into a "factory" that produces novel compounds such as specific proteins or fats. Here's how it works.
Synthetic biology, or synbio, uses genetically modified microorganisms such as yeast or algae to produce valuable compounds through fermentation. The biotech industry has labeled this process "precision fermentation" to distance its products from unpopular GMOs, but it's still a product of genetic engineering. In synbio, the microorganisms have been modified to produce a specific compound useful in manufacturing or industrial processes, such as proteins, fats, flavors or scents. For example, Impossible Foods uses synbio techniques to make a blood-like substance called "heme," which gives the Impossible burger's GMO soy-based patty its "meatiness" — and even makes it appear juicy and bloody.
Molecular farming is another new GMO technique in which agricultural crops are engineered to produce specific proteins or other compounds they would not naturally produce. For example, U.K.-based Moolec Science has developed a soy plant that produces pork proteins (yes, you read that right). Pork-infused GMO soybeans could boost the protein content in plant-based meat alternatives or make them more convincingly pork-like.
If you eat meat, you eat soy
We've explored the good and not-so-good ways soy shows up in plant-based alternatives, but where does that leave meat-eaters? Surprisingly, carnivores are also indebted to soy. The USDA estimates that 70% of soy ends up in livestock feed. So, even if you get your protein from traditional animal sources, its production still relies heavily on soy. . Whether you enjoy a plant-based diet or eat meat, there's a high likelihood that soy touches your diet.
Because soy is the most commonly grown commodity crop in North America and 95% of it is GMO, looking for the Butterfly on plant-based or animal-derived products is one of the most impactful ways to avoid GMOs, support sustainable farming practices and influence the supply chain. Let's build a better food system, one burger (or veggie burger) at a time!