History of Soybeans: Part One

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By Elena Day

Back in 1972, Nixon opened the door to the People’s Republic of China. I and many others became enamored with things Chinese: embroidered textiles, very cute cloth Mary Jane shoes, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, alfalfa and mung bean sprouts, soy sauce, and tofu. “Tofu,” a soybean product, translated into a healthy food choice that would provide a goodly amount of protein. The ill effects of high cholesterol had entered the public consciousness in the early 70s and tofu, tempeh (fermented soybeans glommed together by fungal mycelia) and textured vegetable protein, also made from soybeans to resemble meat, would decrease our meat consumption and feed the impoverished populations of developing countries.

Decades later U.S. agriculture has become a monoculture—duoculture is perhaps more appropriate—of soybeans and corn. It didn’t begin with the hippies’ hopes that eating tofu and tempeh would contribute to better tomorrows in the Age of Aquarius.

Soybeans or soya beans (Glycine max) are legumes native to East Asia. They may have been domesticated in China between 9000 and 8600 years ago. Today soy meal is a cheap protein source for animal feeds and soy oil is the most widely used edible oil in the U.S. Soybeans are categorized as an oilseed rather than a pulse by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Pulses are dried legumes.

Soybeans were traditionally consumed as tofu and soy milk in East Asia. Fermented soy products include tempeh (Indonesia), natto (Japan), bean paste and soy sauce.

Green or immature soybeans are boiled or steamed and called edamame, a popular snack or side dish in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine.

Soybean plants are self-fertile. The plants develop nodules in their root system that host symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Rhizobia). These make more nutrients available to the plant and also reinvigorate soil. In Chinese myth soybeans were sacred because of their beneficial effects in crop rotation.

Soybeans contain significant amounts of all the essential amino acids. Soybean oil and protein account for 60 percent of dry soybeans by weight. The breakdown is 35-40 percent protein and 20 percent oil. Soybeans produce twice as much protein per acre than any other major grain or vegetable crop, five to 10 times more per acre than pasture for dairy animals, and up to 15 times more protein per acre than land for meat production.

Soybeans were first introduced to North America in 1765 by Samuel Bowen, a former East India company sailor. The first crop was grown on Skidaway Island, Georgia, by Henry Yonge, to whom Bowen had given seed. Bowen subsequently farmed soybeans near Savannah and exported soy sauce to England. In 1774-75 Bowen exported 200 pounds of soy vermicelli to England. He received 200 guineas from King George and a gold medal from the Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. For the next 150 years soybean cultivation was for animal forage and was not widespread. However scientific studies on soybeans were ongoing in England, Europe and the United States beginning in the 1880s.

In the early 20th century soybeans became known as the “miracle “or “golden” bean in the United States. Not only did acreage for animal forage expand but Lafayette Mendel and Thomas Burr Osborne of Yale University demonstrated in 1917 that cooking soybeans with “wet heat” increased their nutritional value and thereby made them more desirable as human food and animal feed rather than simply forage.

What the two researchers demonstrated had been understood for millennia in East Asia. Previously, soy flours/meal had been only used in diabetic diets in the United States. Soy flour, soy grits, and soy flakes in combination with cereals were increasingly incorporated into the American diet as the 20th century progressed.

By the 1920s soybeans were one of our largest farm crops. Soybeans provided animal feed and oil, and had industrial uses. During the Depression soybean plantings helped reinvigorate Dust Bowl soils. Henry Ford funded soybean research and in 1931 two of his chemists produced artificial silk from spun soybean protein fibers tanned in a formaldehyde bath. The product was named Azion, but it was DuPont’s Nylon that won out as the artificial silk.

In 1931-32 Henry Ford spent $1,250,000 on soybean research. By 1935 every Ford Motor Company car had soybeans involved in its production. Each car included two bushels or 120 pounds worth of soybeans as paint, fluid for shock absorbers, and soy-based plastic paneling. Ford–funded soybean research resulted in commercial production of soy milk, ice cream, and the first all-vegetable, non-dairy whipped topping. The agriculture/industry connection was strengthening. On August 13, 1941, Henry Ford unveiled his “Soybean Car,” which weighed 2,000 lbs., 1,000 less than a steel car, made with lots of soybean plastic paneling. WWII suspended auto manufacturing shortly thereafter.

Due to disruption of trade in World War II, soybean acreage expanded to provide protein and edible oil in both North America and Europe. 1941 was also the first year that soybean acreage for feed exceeded that grown for forage.

In the early 1960s in GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) talks the U.S. secured tariff-free access to European markets and soybean production again expanded. By the end of the 1960s the U.S. was exporting 90 percent of its soybeans.

I recall attending a North Carolina State Beekeepers meeting in the 1970s where attendees bemoaned the drainage of gallberry swamps in eastern North Carolina to the detriment of honey bee populations. The claim was that “wealthy doctors from Raleigh/Durham” were buying up the coastal swamps and draining them to plant soybeans and corn. I did google this and found that, indeed, drainage of gallberry swamps was ongoing in eastern N.C. in the 70s. Gallberry, or Ilex glabra, is an evergreen shrub in the holly family that is/was a significant source of honey in the southeastern Atlantic coastal plain.

Monsanto glyphosate-tolerant, genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready soybeans were first introduced in 1995. In 1997, 8 percent of the soybeans were GM. In 2010 93 percent were GM. In 2014 Brazil exported 90 million tons of soybeans. The U.S. exported 89 million tons and Argentina 52.6 millions. These three countries grow 90 percent of the world’s soybeans. China grows 5 percent and India 4 percent. China and the European Union are the largest importers of soy in the form of meal for animals. China imports 41 percent of our soy products. Soy meal has made possible the increase in industrial farming of chickens, turkeys, hogs and catfish.

In the U.S. soybeans and corn are duo-cropped, which means two years of corn and one of soy on no-till acreage. Maybe farmland is being saved from erosion, but it is doused with chemical fertilizer and with toxic pesticides to kill weeds that have achieved glyphosate resistance and to kill insect pests as well. With ongoing “globalization” it seems we also suffer the globalization of weeds and insect pests.

Apparently in Virginia the corn earworm moth has become a problem in both corn and soybean cropping. Helicoverpa zea feeds on many different plants and can make use of diapause or dormancy to wait out adverse environmental conditions like drought. One-third of Virginia soybean acreage is treated with pounds and pounds of insecticide costing farmers between $1.5 and $2 million annually. When corn plants dry up quickly in dry weather, corn earworm moths seek other hosts like flowering soybeans.

Regarding the agriculture/industry partnership on soybean culture one can say that the latter has discovered how to use every part of the soybean for profit. Soy oil is the base for most vegetable oils. Oil is extracted and separated from soy protein using the solvent hexane, a neurotoxin and air polluter that is a byproduct of gasoline refining. Unless labeled USDA Organic, consumers cannot assume that hexane is not being used to defat soybeans and extract soy oil. Note the popular Clif Bars have hexane-extracted soy oil in the recipe.

Soy lecithin, the waste left over after the soybean is processed, is used as an emulsifier. Soy flour is in baked goods and soy protein is added to protein powders for both humans and animals. It’s a lot like high fructose corn syrup; it’s in just about all prepared foods. Ninety-eight percent of soy meal is fed to livestock and a small percentage is used in low-end dog food.

One may be under the impression that soy is heavily consumed in East Asia. The reality is that East Asian diets include small amounts of soy products, approximately 9 grams per day in the form of miso, tempeh, or tofu. In contrast, North Americans may be consuming up to 20 grams of non-fermented soy protein in a single serving of processed snack food.

It is becoming clear that mono-cropping GM soybeans (or duo-cropping corn and soy) is detrimental to the planet. Soybean farming has spread into Brazil, hazarding the Amazon rainforest by deforestation and pushing small farmers further into the forest to pursue more deforestation with slash and burn subsistence farming. Expansion of soybean farming in Argentina resulted in the loss of 10,288,000 hectares of forest cover from 1980 to 2000. Currently soy production is moving into the Chaco ecoregion (one of the largest forested biomes in South America) and the Yungas “cloud forest.” Soybeans are currently mono-cropped in sub-Sahara Africa and in China and India. In our own Midwest, soybean (and corn) monocropping/duocropping has resulted in chemical fertilizer runoffs contributing to the ever-increasing “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Increasingly toxic herbicides and insecticides harm wildlife. Birds and beneficial insects decline, especially when farmers plant “fence row to fence row” to increase yields. Note the declining Monarch butterflies.

I recently perused the 2013 United Nations Farming Report. Its title is Trade and Environment Review: Wake Up Before It’s Too Late. It’s quite long, with articles by agriculturists from over 100 countries included. Sixty countries have endorsed its conclusions. Briefly these include the fact that large-scale agriculture undermines small-scale farming. Small-scale farming uses less chemical fertilizers and pesticides and does not contribute to global warming as does the former. Large-scale agriculture in developing countries is generally export-oriented. First World countries get their way via the International Money Fund’s lending policies, which demand that developing countries do away with protective tariffs. The IMF blandly calls the pain that ensues a “Structural Adjustment Program.” First World processors then dump their cheaper-than-locally-produced chicken, rice, tomato concentrate, milk powder and whatever, including lots of soy and corn, onto the least developed/developing countries. Rural populations are forced into cities when they can no longer market products they have traditionally cultivated. At this point larger agricultural enterprises acquire their acreage for large plantations to grow export/cash crops that are not foodstuffs.

In the 1970s Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production, a primary staple in that Caribbean isle. In a Structural Adjustment Program dictated by the IMF, tariffs on imported rice were reduced from 50 percent to 3 percent. Today less than 25 percent of rice is locally produced. Bill Clinton, a big proponent of Structural Adjustment Programs back in his day, admitted his “mistake” regarding Haiti in March 2010. Regarding Sub-Saharan Africa, he is reported to have said, “We blew it.”

Large-scale hunger and poverty have increased in the 21st century. Each day, according to the 2013 United Nations Farming Report, 25,000 people, mostly children, die of malnutrition.

Pope Francis probably read the U.N. Farming Report advocating for change in the current industry-dominated agro-chemical farming model. Monsanto et al. has not read it and is not going to pay attention either, unless we do a lot of insisting.

I will navigate through both the abundance of soy and the shortcomings thereof in our American diets next time.

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