Soy is the most commonly-grown commodity crop in North America today. In 2022, American farmers planted more than 100 million acres of soy — more acreage than any other single crop. That's a lot of soybeans, but not necessarily a lot of food. In fact, most soy isn't used in human food at all.
According to the USDA, just over 70% of soy grown in the U.S. becomes animal feed and another 5% becomes biodiesel. Roughly a quarter of the soybeans end up in food for human consumption, primarily as highly-processed ingredients such as oils, ground meals and starches with little nutritional value.
The agrichemical corporations that make and patent GMO soy have grown tremendously rich and powerful by prioritizing profit over all else. GMOs create wealth for shareholders way more than they offer a meaningful benefit to the consumer, the farmer or the planet.
Here's how GMO soy supports some of contemporary agriculture's most destructive practices.
Just add glyphosate
Roughly 95% of soy grown in the United States is genetically engineered to withstand weedkillers, a GMO trait known as herbicide tolerance. The first herbicide-tolerant GMO soy was created by inserting DNA from a glyphosate-resistant bacteria into the soy plant so farmers could apply weedkillers to their fields without damaging their cash crop.
When herbicide-tolerant GMOs were introduced, the biotech industry promised the new technology would reduce pesticide application, but data shows the reverse is true. Since the 1990s, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold. While glyphosate was initially marketed as a "safe" weedkiller, in 2015 it was deemed a "probable human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Herbicide-tolerant GMO crops, including soy, have led to the rise of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Superweeds emerge through natural selection. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that will kill off most weeds, but because nature is diverse and resilient, a few weeds survive. The survivors generate seeds and pass their resistance on to the next generation.
Today, glyphosate-resistant weeds such as ragweed, horseweed and rigid ryegrass are common across the U.S. The Non-GMO Project's headquarter state of Washington is also home to 14 unique herbicide-resistant weeds — click here to find out how many there are in your state.
Superweeds are a growing problem. Once herbicide-resistant superweeds emerge, farmers must apply more or stronger herbicides to remove them. The soy farmer’s weapon of choice is usually the notoriously volatile herbicide dicamba.
Dicamba is a highly destructive herbicide that has caused catastrophic damage to crops across the United States. As glyphosate-resistant superweeds became more of a problem, farmers looked for another herbicide that could wipe them out. In 2016, Monsanto created a dicamba-tolerant GMO soybean. To frustrated farmers, GMO soy looked like a chance to get ahead of glyphosate-resistant weeds, but the increase in dicamba use had its own downsides.
Dicamba is infamous for its volatility, meaning that under certain conditions, it forms a gas and can drift miles from where it is sprayed, devastating crops and natural areas along the way. Since 2017, millions of acres of crops have reportedly been destroyed by dicamba drift, although the EPA estimates the real damage could be as much as 25 times worse than reports indicate.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the use of dicamba has increased 6-fold in the last decade. During that time, new restrictions and GMOs have entered the market — and newly dicamba-resistant superweeds have appeared in Tennessee and Illinois.
The pesticide treadmill
Relying on chemicals leads to a phenomenon called "the pesticide treadmill." Pesticide overuse prompts a target pest to develop immunity. Then, a new chemical pesticide is chosen to target the superweeds and the cycle continues. Getting off the treadmill is challenging because the whole system that farmers work in — extension agents, lobbyists influencing federal policies, crop insurance programs — is framed around the needs and products of agrichemical companies. There is more incentive to stay on the treadmill than to find another way.
Ultimately, chemical companies and their subsidiaries are the only real winners. Since GMOs first entered the market, they have been wildly successful in selling more chemicals. With each herbicide-tolerant GMO crop, sales of the accompanying weedkillers skyrocket.
History has repeatedly shown us that reliance on GMOs, chemical pesticides and industrial-style agriculture is doomed to fail. It springs from the urge to rebuild the natural world as a factory — homogenous, efficient and extractive. However, real solutions are based on working with nature, not against it. Food security means embracing the diversity that underpins resilient, regenerative and non-GMO agriculture.