Is the Switch to Organic Soybeans Possible?

By Chris Everett
2014, Vol. 10 No. 3 | pg. 1/1

Soybeans first appeared on the world stage when Chinese farmers began cultivating them around 1100 B.C. (North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, Inc.). The plant quickly spread to the rest of Southeast Asia and became an integral part of the regional diet. In the 1700s, the soybean debuted in Europe, occurring only after the success and subsequent demand for soy sauce. Soybean cultivation in the United States began in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that soybeans were planted on a large scale and, even then, they were usually used as forage for livestock (North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, Inc). The current inundation of soybeans within the industrial food system can be traced back to the growth of the military industrial complex, which was facilitated by World War II.

With the war came an increased demand for lubricants, plastics, and other oil-derived products. Soybeans had traditionally been imported from other countries, but the steep demand within the United States necessitated domestic growth. Currently, the United States grows more than one-third of the world’s soybeans, which have become “… products of very large agribusiness operations.” (Kimbrell, Fatal Harvest pg. 134 ).

In 2013 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that 76.5 million acres of soybeans were planted in the United States and, of that acreage, 93% was genetically modified to make the plant herbicide tolerant and/or insect resistant (Fernandez- Cornejo). Monsanto introduced herbicide tolerant soybeans in 1996 with the creation of Roundup Ready soybeans and has since applied similar principles to many other crops such as corn and cotton.

Roundup Ready soybeans are resistant to the chemical glyphosate, a herbicide that allows farmers to spray for weeds without hurting their crop yields (Hauter). Following this invention, only 7% of the soybean crop in the United States, or some 5 million acres, are planted with non-genetically modified soybeans. While GMO soybean production did not get its start until 1996, soybeans have long been valued as a source of protein.

In a collection of essays titled, “Give Us This Day,” compiled by the New York Times in the early 1970s, soy protein was recognized as a “better” solution to solve the nutritional needs of a growing world population. The industrial food system has since derived many products from soybeans that are now used in an increasingly large number of food applications. Nearly all soybeans produced in the United States are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and increasing concern over the dangers of GMO soybeans has inflamed the debate over the benefits and consequences of GMO products.

Evidence suggests a move away from GMO soybeans will benefit the environment and the consumer by decreasing the use of chemicals and increasing the nutritional quality of food products. However, current policies and economic conditions such as government subsidies and monetary incentives inhibit a large-scale shift from GMO soybean production to organic soybean production, so focus must be put on small steps that can be taken toward more sustainable agricultural practices.

To better appreciate the importance of soybeans in the industrial food system, it is important to understand the methods of soybean production. Soybean varieties are grouped into 13 maturity groups depending on the climate and latitude for which they are adapted (McWilliams et al.). The large variety of soybean cultivars allows farmers to choose plant types that are better suited for growth in certain geographical regions and climates. Soybean seeds can be planted as early as April or as late as July in the United States. To ensure high crop yields, farmers may plant 6 to 10 different varieties of soybeans each growing season. Indeterminate varieties are often grown at northerly latitudes, where season length is shorter, since these varieties mature faster due the to simultaneous growth of vegetative and reproductive characteristics.

In the south, longer growing seasons allow for the cultivation of determinate soybean varieties. Soybeans reach maturity once the pods and seeds have dried and changed in color from green to yellow to brown. Harvesting, usually done with a combine, is appropriate when the moisture content of the seeds is less than fifteen percent (McWilliams et al.). If the seeds are more than fifteen percent water, they must be dried before they can be distributed and processed.

The soybean is one of the most important protein crops in the world due to its high protein content of around thirty percent, the highest of any legume (Pimentel). In addition to their high protein content, the energy output to input ratio of soybeans also makes them a desirable food source. As calculated by David and Marcia Pimentel in Food, Energy, and Society, soybeans have one of the highest energy output to input ratios of 3.19 to 1. This calculation takes into account the large variety of energy inputs needed for soybean processing such as herbicides, nitrogen fertilizer, diesel used in transportation, and the energy needed to run the necessary machinery. Thus, it makes sense both from a nutrition and economic perspective to use soybeans as part of the industrial food system.

The rise of soybeans as a source of protein within the industrialized food system parallels the rise of corn as a source of carbohydrates (Pollan, pg. 91). Together, these two crops have dramatically changed the production and distribution of food. Much like corn, every part of the soybean is utilized throughout the production process. Processing enables soybeans to be consumed in the form of whole soybeans, soy protein, soybean oil and soy lecithin. During the first stage of processing, soybeans are cracked to remove the hull. The hulls can be used as animal food or processed into fiber additive that are included in everyday food items such as bread and cereal. Processing the remaining part of the soybeans yields full-fat flakes that are used in a variety of commercial applications (U.S. Soybean Export Council).

Next, crude soybean oil is removed from the full-fat flakes with a solvent and further refinement of the oil separates out the lecithin. Lecithin is used in many food items from baked goods to instant foods. Once the oil is extracted, defatted soy flakes remain and are used as protein products in soy flour, soy concentrates, and soy isolates. Soy flour is especially valued for its ability to increase the shelf life of baked goods, soy concentrates are often used in protein drinks and soup bases while soy isolates are used as emulsifiers in dairy products (U.S. Soybean Export Council). Soybeans have become such an integral part of our diet that any dramatic change in soybean production would lead to major shifts in how food is processed and distributed to consumers.

Since their development and implementation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been both lauded for their potential to provide enough food for an ever-increasing population and decried for their negative effects on the environment and their unknown effects on human health. As Pinstrup-Anderon and Ebbe Shiøler claim in “Seeds of Contention,” the public debate within the United States often seems one-sided, in favor of non-GMO products. They further argue that the concerns surrounding GMOs in developed countries focus on the consequences of “tampering” with nature. These concerns draw attention away the potential benefits of GMO crops and limit questions about how GMOs can increase crop productivity or improve the quality of food that is consumed (Pinstrup- Anderson, pg. 11).

Despite this apparent negative consensus, consumers have taken little action to limit the use of GMOs in the industrial food system. Instead, change is occurring in the form of a popular push for the production of more “organic” food that parallels the increasing prevalence of GMOS. More and more consumers can be found roaming the aisles of “organic” grocery stores like Whole Foods and avoiding GMO products sold in Wal-Mart size supermarkets. However, organic and GMO are not mutually exclusive. The term “organic” is a subjective measure of product quality that is not fully understood by consumers. There are many rules and regulations set for by government agencies and policies guide the production of “certified organic” and GMO products. In light of the increasing prevalence of GMOs, an analysis of the difference between certified organic products and GMO products must occur. This analysis can be accomplished by examining the methods of organic and GMO production in addition to an explanation of the current laws that set standards for organic products.

However, this does not mean that those acres produced USDA certified organic soybeans or that less herbicides or pesticides were used on the soil. These fields may be non-GMO but they are not organic. Often, GMO fields and non-GMO fields of the same crop receive the same treatment in terms of amount of herbicide and pesticide but with different chemicals (Charles). In addition, standard commercial fertilizer is used to keep the soil fertile on both GMO and non-GMO fields. With essentially the same inputs, it can be said that GMO and non-GMO fields are both farmed conventionally. Production in organic fields is vastly different from conventional fields. Natural fertilizers, such as chicken litter, are used on organic fields and crop rotation is implemented as a means to control pests. Weeds must be removed by hand as herbicides are prohibited. Organic farming offers a more environmentally friendly form than conventional farming and should be considered as an alternative to conventional farming.

Fears and concerns over the consequences of the industrial agricultural system have led organic farming to be labeled as “… a crucial alternative to industrial agriculture” by many ecological thinkers (Kimbrell, The Fatal Harvest Reader pg. 279). Individuals have responded to these fears and a growing number of consumers can be found searching grocery store shelves for organic labeled food. However, “organic” does not mean that the resultant food product is completely GMO free. The production of organic crops requires stringent farming practices that are regulated by the USDA and “demonstrat[ion] that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances” (Agricultural Marketing Service). The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (Title 21 of P.L. 101-624, the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990) authorized the National Organic Program (NOP) to be administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The program is operated based on federal regulations that define standard organic farming practices and on a National List of acceptable organic production inputs in order to use the USDA Organic label.

These regulations are set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations at 7 C.F.R. Section 205. To be able to use the Certified or USDA Organic labels, the producer must apply to a USDA accredited certifying agent providing a detailed description of the operation and a history of the substances applied to the land during the previous three years. To be labeled as 100% Organic the product must contain by weight 100% organically produced ingredients (7 C.F.R. 205.301(a)). To be labeled as USDA Organic “a raw or processed agricultural product sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products” (7 C.F.R. 205.301(b)). The remaining ingredients must “be organically produced, unless not commercially available in organic form, or must be nonagricultural substances or non-organically produced agricultural products produced consistent with the National List” that is provided in subpart G of the regulations ( 7 C.F.R. 205.301(b)).

The regulation also sets forth long lists of both non-organic produced agricultural products; such as casings from intestines, celery powder, chia, and colors, that are allowed as ingredients in processed organic-labeled consumer items (7 C.F.R. 205.606) and non-agriculture/nonorganic substances; such as acids, calcium, dairy cultures, egg whites, gum, waxes, and yeast, that are allowed as ingredients in organic products (7 C.F.R. 205.605). Therefore, Certified or USDA Organic labels that require at least 95% of the content is organic by weight are usually GMO free. However, the remaining 5% of the content may not be “organic” and this and other loopholes exist that allow for some conventional food products to be incorporated into organic food (Agricultural marketing Service). In addition, GMOs can become incorporated into organic food products through cross-pollination between GMO and non-GMO crops, trace amounts of GMO in animal feed, or contamination when ingredients from different suppliers are combined .

Many problems stand in the way of a shift from conventional soybean production to organic soybean production. Perhaps the most glaring is the change in production techniques that would need to occur. As mentioned before, organic fields must follow strict USDA guidelines in order to be labeled as certified organic. These guidelines enforce the use of natural fertilizers and prohibit the use of pesticides and herbicides among many other rules. This requires farmers to rotate crops in an effort to control pests and hand pick unwanted weeds. These two requirements alone make a change from conventional food production to large-scale organic production difficult, at best, and possibly infeasible.

Crop rotation is an agricultural practice used to maintain the health of soil. For example, organic soybean farmers may cultivate “…soybeans, corn, oats, and alfalfa in successive growing seasons” to insure necessary nutrients are replenished in the soil (Kimbrell, Fatal Harvest, pg. 135). Rotating crops does maintain soil viability over periods of time but decreases the production of lucrative crops such as soybeans, as they cannot be grown on in the same soil every season. Without herbicides, large-scale organic operations must hire laborers to pick weeds by hand increasing the cost of production .

In a detailed study, published by the Economic Research Service on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers collected data on the production costs and returns of conventional and organic soybean operations in the Midwest in 2006. The study found that the total economic cost of conventional soybean production was $5.87 per bushel while the total economic cost of organic soybean production was $10.97 per bushel (McBride). Higher fuel prices are the main reason for difference in economic cost as more mechanical systems are need to weed and till organic farms.

The study also found that the yield of conventional soybeans was much higher, 47.06 bushels per acre, than that of organic soybeans, 31.04 bushels per acre. Unsurprisingly, the price at which the bushels were sold was dramatically higher for organic soybeans, $14.64 per bushel, than for conventional soybeans, $5.48 per bushel. While organic soybeans do sell more on the market and thus may seem more favorable to farmers, higher conventional soybean prices and fuel costs limit the expansion of organic soybean acreage (McBride). Thus, lower yields, higher cost of production, and high fuel prices, currently inhibit a permanent shift to organic soybean production.

In addition, switching from large scale GMO production to large scale organic production may be impossible to implement because of the proliferation of GMO seeds. Currently, ninety-three percent of the soybean crop in the United States is genetically modified. Despite the already high statistic,, the percentage of soybean crops that are genetically modified to be both herbicide-tolerant and pesticide resistant is growing. (Fernandez-Cornejo). This unprecedented percentage allows for little variation in growing techniques and promotes the use of monoculture and other conventional agricultural techniques. High demand for soybeans as animal feed and for industrial food inputs requires large crop yields that could not be supported without the use of GMO soybeans in conjunction with herbicides and pesticides. Furthermore, it is impossible to mediate the natural spread of GMO crops as they proliferate the same ways as non-GMO or organic crops.

Pollen carried by wind, rain, and insects can easily travel from a field of GMO soybeans to a nearby field of organic soybeans. This “biological pollution” has caused many organic farms to become contaminated with genetically modified crops. Farmers are often unaware of this crosspollination and continue to grow crops that may be contaminated. Many small farmers who depend on organic soybeans and other crops as a source of income have had to sell contaminated fields at a lower price, hurting their profits and destabilizing their primary source of income (Lilliston). Controlling the spread of GMO crops becomes increasingly problematic as small farmers in Mexico have reportedly found evidence of genetically modified corn typically grown in the United States spreading to their land (Knudson et. al).

While these plants may be unwanted, it is difficult to stop them from spreading and there is often little to no federal or state regulation. Farmers who are not interested in growing GMO crops are often left on their own to deal with contamination that may occur in their fields (Lee et al.). In order to curb the prevalence of GMO soybeans and consider a move to the production of organic soybeans, increased oversight on the state and federal level must work to provide support to farmers who are serious about a maintain the organic integrity of their crops.

While many problems need to be solved before a change to organic soybeans can be considered, there is clear evidence that organic soybeans are not only more environmentally friendly than GMO soybeans, but they have also been shown to be healthier for human consumption. An article published in 2013 by Bøhn et al. analyzed and described the nutrient and element composition of 31 batches of soybeans from Iowa. The study included residues from herbicides and pesticides in the report and compared Roundup Ready soybeans to non-GMO soybeans and certified organic soybeans.

It is of particular interest that herbicide and pesticide residues were included in the report, as the prevalence of these residues in processed food is often unknown to the consumer. Roundup Ready soybeans are glyphosate tolerant. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and approximately 6200,000 tons were produced in 2008 (Bøhn et al.). The study concluded that organic soybeans showed the best nutritional profile and contained no glyphosate. Organic soybeans had more sugar, proteins, and zinc than both the non-GMO soybeans the Roundup

Ready soybeans. Non-GMO soybeans also contained no traces of glyphosate but were deemed less nutritious than the organic soybeans, which directly refutes earlier claims that non-GMO soybeans actually contained more glyphosate than Roundup Ready soybeans. Many Roundup Ready plants were also found to contain levels of glyphosate that were considered “extreme” and “far higher than those typically found” (Bøhn et al.). This is particularly disturbing as the effects of glyphosate on human health are not fully understood or researched. It will be important to continue investigating the presence of glyphosate in industrial food products in an effort to understand and eventually mitigate the potential negative effects of this widely used herbicide.

From a consumer’s perspective, the study provides great support for the claim that the nutritional quality of GMO soybeans is worse than that of organic or non-GMO soybeans. Not only was glyphosate found as a residue on the Roundup Ready soybeans, but the herbicide had also been absorbed by the plant and could be found in the leaves and the beans. The “microbial community” within soil is important in balancing the growth and health of crops (Bøhn et al.). When glyphosate is added to the soil and absorbed by the plant, the microenvironment is upset, which disrupts the natural growth process and decreases the formation of nutrients for which the crop is valued.

The switch from Roundup Ready soybeans and other GMO varieties to organic soybeans is clearly a good choice to make in terms of environmental sustainability and nutritional benefit. Organic soybeans would eliminate the use of glyphosate reducing the pollution of streams and rivers caused by runoff. Other benefits would be improved nutritional value and lower risk to human health. Despite the numerous benefits, however, large-scale production of organic soybeans may be an unrealistic vision considering the current reality of the industrial food system. The infrastructure exists to enable large organic operations but the inputs that are required for organic cultivation are much more labor-intensive and increase the cost of production, which, in turn, raises prices for the consumer. The costly element of organic production is exemplified in the procedures of crop rotation and pulling weeds by hand. These procedures decrease production and increase labor costs, but are essential in order to avoid depleting the soil and removing unwanted weeds from the fields.

Organic operations may also have difficulty keeping up with high demand for large crop yields. While it may be impossible for a complete switch to organic soybeans, small steps can be taken by consumers to improve the outlook for the implementation of organic soybean production. These steps include improving consumer education on issues surrounding GMO soybeans, increasing consumer access to locally grown and seasonal food, and applying political pressure in favor of policies, such as labeling and price systems, that favor a move away from GMO soybean production. Soybeans have become a permanent part of our food culture and will continue to play an important role in our diet. The future is vague as to whether this will be through the production of GMO, non-GMO, or organic soybeans but any movement away from Roundup Ready soybeans will be an agricultural change that will undoubtedly have a positive influence the future of our food .


Agricultural Marketing Service. National Organic Program. United States Department of Agriculture. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014

Bøhn, T.; Cuhra, M.; Traavik, T.; Sanden, M.; Fagan, J.; Primicerio, R. Compositional differences in soybeans on the market, Food Chemistry 2013. 153. 15.

Charles, D. Why The ‘Non-GMO’ Label is Organic’s Frenemy. NPR. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2014

Fernandez-Cornejo, J. Recent Trends in GE Adoption. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014

Hauter, W. Foodopoly. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print

Kimbrell, Andrew, ed. Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Washington: Island Press, 2002. Print

Kimbrell, Andrew, ed. The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Washington: Island Press, 2002. Print.

Knudson, T.; Lau, E.; Lee, M. Globe-trotting genes. The Sacramento Bee, 2004. Web. 14 Mar. 2014

Lee, M.; Lau, E.; Scattered efforts. The Sacramento Bee. 2004. Web. 12 Mar. 2014

Lilliston, Ben. Farmers Fight to Save Organic Crops. The Progressive. 2001. Web. 13 Mar. 2014

McBride, W.D.; Greene, W. The Profitability of Organic Soybean Production. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2014

McWilliams, D.A.; Berglund, D.R.; Endres, G.J. Soybean Growth and Managements. NDSU Extension Service. 1999. Web. 12 Mar. 2014

North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, Inc. The History of Soybeans. 2007 – 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014

Pimentel, David, and Marcia H. Pimentel. Food Energy and Society. 3rd Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2008. Print.

Pinstrup-Anderson, Per, and Ebbe Schioler. Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global controversy over GM crops. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Print.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivores Dilemma. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

The New York Times. Give Us This Day… New York: Arno Press, 1974. Print.

U.S. Soybean Export Council. Bean Lifecycle. USSEC. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2014

United States Code of Federal Regulations, 7 C.F.R. Section 205 (2012)

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