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Soybean of Happiness

Rich in tradition and yet only now being understood, the soybean is a plant of complexity and contradiction. It possesses the characteristics of both animal protein and fuel oil. It can be rendered into both a meat-like fiber and a cow-like milk. It can provide low-cost vegetable protein, yet it has become a mainstay of the livestock feed industry. It is a relatively self-sufficient crop, producing its own nitrogen nutrients and resistant to most diseases, yet is at the center of controversy about genetically modified foods. Its cultivation has the potential to reduce environmental impacts from agriculture, energy, and other sectors, yet as part of the corn/soy rotation, its cropping pattern creates more US nutrient-pollution and sediment than any of the global monocultures.

The wild relative of Glycine max was a rambling plant, growing close to the ground. Sometime around the eleventh century B.C.E., farmers in the winter wheat–growing regions of Manchurian China encouraged the recumbent wild legume to grow upright. The enthusiasm of Chinese farmers for the soybean was manifested in the names they bestowed on the crop's many varieties: Great Treasure, Brings Happiness, Yellow Jewel, Heaven's Bird. After three millennia of breeding and plant selection, today's soybean plants typically stand three feet high and three feet wide, bearing sixty to eighty pods of three beans each. Soybeans grow well even in marginal soils, and possess the soil-enriching property of leguminous plants, namely the ability to draw nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the ground through their roots.

For Asians who did not drink animal milk, the soybean quickly became indispensable. The beans, which were soaked in water to yield a white liquid, were known affectionately as "the Cow of China." But, in contrast to other staples like corn or rice, the hard oilseed needs to be intensively processed. In 206 B.C.E., in Han Dynasty China, soybeans were first fermented to make douchi, the predecessor of soy sauce and miso. (What is called douchi by the Chinese and hamanatto by the Japanese, we call "salted black beans," because the soybeans turn black during fermentation.) Soy's flour, powder, or curds were fermented to make miso (soy paste), shoyu (soy sauce), doufu (soy curd), natto (soy cheese), and tempeh (a soybean cake invented in Indonesia), as well as yuba, kinako, hamanatto, and kochu chang . Steamed green beans, roasted soy nuts, and soybean sprouts were also favored and highly nutritious.

In the last half of the first millennium C.E., the Japanese upper classes adopted many pillars of Chinese culture, from writing characters and legal norms to the Buddhist religion and doufu (known in Japan as tofu). A sixth-century monk poetically praised tofu's "dazzling white robes," accentuating the refinement with which Japanese culinary artistry endowed the soybean. Around the seventh century C.E., Japan's miso tradition emerged. Miso seems to have evolved from both chiang, a soybean paste that Buddhist monks brought from China, and jang, a similar soybean product that Korean farmers introduced to Japan's countryside. Miso remained a delicacy of the privileged classes, made almost exclusively by monks until the tenth century. Eventually, soybeans became more widely available, and the methods of fermenting soybean paste to produce miso became as diverse as the households that prepared it. By the eighteenth century, samurai families established the miso-making industry. Today, while miso is served throughout the country in households nearly every day as a broth for soup, or a dressing or sauce for grilling fish and other meats, its production has been largely relegated to giant factories. Most of Japan's soybeans are imported.

Soybeans' four "first-generation" or ancient foodstuffs—miso, soy sauce, tempeh, and tofu—are fairly refined and bear little resemblance to the just-harvested legume pods. For this reason, the earliest references among western visitors to China or Japan rarely mentioned the soybean itself. Instead, travelers wrote of "gravy," "great cakes like cheeses," "milk out of the kidney beans," and other exotic culinary descriptions. Though soy sauce became a widely traded commodity during the seventeenth century, soy's cultivation and use as a food plant were not well understood in Europe until Engelbert Kaempfer (a medical officer with the Dutch East India Company who had served on a junket in Japan), described them in his botanical work, Amoenitatum Eroficum .

Soybean historian Theodore Hymowitz credits Samuel Bowen with introducing the soybean to the United States. Bowen was an adventurer, working for the East India Company, who claimed to have been taken prisoner for four years and transported from place to place within China. By 1767 Bowen was contracting with farmers to grow the bean in Savannah, Georgia. He successfully sold the crop in the form of soy sauce to England, but failed to elevate the plant to the status of cotton or peanuts. Benjamin Franklin, an early proponent of vegetarianism, shipped seeds to John Bartram of Philadelphia in 1770 along with a letter praising the tofu which the Chinese made from soy. Still, the soybean languished in obscurity in the West for another century and a half.

Soy Industrialism

Prior to World War II, the soybean had no more zealous advocate, publicist, or experimenter than Henry Ford. Father of the modern assembly line, proponent of affordable cars for the masses, Ford also spent vast economic resources developing industrial and culinary uses for the soybean. During the last two decades of his life (the 1930s and 1940s), he became more preoccupied with the industrial possibilities of vegetable protein than with the V-8 engine. Ford co-founded the "chemurgy movement," an emerging agricultural effort to apply chemistry and applied sciences to agriculture. It was also an extension of his life-long efforts to improve the lot of the farmer.

Soy was a perfect study for Ford. Until the 1930s, the extraction of soy oil through mechanical processing degraded the protein in the leftover meal. Soybean-meal use stagnated as a poor supplement to cattle feed; sometimes it was used as a fertilizer. During the 1930s, the chemurgists learned to extract the oil from the meal with hexane, a petroleum solvent. The soy oil could be used for human foods like margarine and salad oil as well as various industrial purposes, while the intact protein-rich meal could be fed to cattle, poultry, and pigs. Research exploded.

Every part of the bean, from hulls to oil to protein to carbohydrate, found a use. By the late 1950s, the first edible soy flour and grits had been perfected. Soy flour became a substitute or added ingredient in bakery goods. In 1959, the first 70-percent soy concentrates came from Griffith's Labs in Illinois. By 1960, the Central Soya Company had produced a 90-percent soy protein extract. By 1970, Archer Daniels Midland fabricated the first soy protein with the texture of meat. Today, soy comes as enzyme-active soy flour, texturized soy protein, defatted soy flakes, soy meal, soy concentrates, soy isolates, and full-fat flour.

The second generation of soyfoods—based on these soy products—blossomed. In the 1960s, "Baco-Bits," made from soy-fatted flour, became America's first commercially successful industrial soyfood product, a cheap non-meat substitute for bacon, easily used in various dishes. In 1982, David Mintz created Tofutti at his New York kosher deli. The first popular non-dairy ice cream, Tofutti was a blend of tofu, soy milk, and other soy proteins. It became, at that time, the biggest food boom in American food history.

"In 1975 you couldn't find anything made from [fermented] soy outside of a Chinese or Asian grocery store," says soy specialist William Shurtleff. "Today soy milk and tofu are available in most supermarkets around the country. As the advantages of a vegetarian diet—water and energy conservation, preventive health benefits, and reduced environmental impacts—become better known, the soybean will be instrumental in changing us from a global economy that depends upon farming a huge amount of plants and feeding them to animals which are slaughtered, to one based largely on vegetable protein."

That's still a long way off. Only 3 percent of US soybeans (by weight) go directly to human food; about 99 percent of soy meal is fed to poultry, pigs, and cattle. (One-third of the crop is exported; most of those soybeans are fed to large and small livestock as well.)

The Industrial Products

The oil embargoes of the 1970s brought long lines to filling stations, pushing the price of a gallon of gas over one dollar. They also threatened ink shortages (oil is the medium necessary to carry the pigment in printers' inks); the American Newspaper Publishers Association launched a quest for an alternative, and singled out soy oil from 2,000 other plant formulations. Soy oil was fairly inexpensive, had acceptable viscosity, and possessed an unusual clarity that allowed pigments to show through more sharply and brilliantly than did its petroleum-based brethren. Soy oil was the perfect "slip-in" product. It could be substituted to print newspapers without any change in equipment or techniques.

By 1987, six daily newspapers had ushered in the new generation of soy-based inks. A decade later nearly one-third (3,000) of America's newspapers had followed suit. More than 100 US ink manufacturers now offer at least one soy-based product. Color soy ink is competitively priced with petroleum-based color ink. Black soy ink currently costs about 25 percent more than conventional ink, but seems to stretch further on the press, and is easier to clean up.

Soy oil not only is the number-one edible vegetable oil in use today, but has all the properties of petroleum—without the toxicity. Because it's biodegradable, researchers are finding applications for soy oil as a clean-burning substitute for diesel fuel in inner-city buses and as a lubricant in pumps and machinery that could potentially leak into sensitive environments. Soy oil is increasingly substituted for petroleum-based oils in plastics, household and industrial cleaners, paints, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides, to name just a few categories. This is still an embryonic market. Only one-tenth of one percent of all the US soybeans harvested goes to industrial uses.

Globalocal Soy Fights

In the 1970s, Japanese and other international investors started to capitalize soybean farms in Argentina and Brazil. Today, these two nations produce 28 percent of the world's supply and have begun to challenge US soybean producers in the global export market. Upper Mississippi barge traffic to New Orleans now competes with the Rios Paraná/Paraguay river system in transporting soybeans to export markets (see page 91). In a few years, more rainforest may be lost to expanding soy production than to timber harvesting and pulp and paper.

With over seventy million acres in soybean production, the United States (where the crop output is second only to corn's) dominates the global market. Brazil, Argentina, China, and India are the next largest soybean producers. But, it is hard to know exactly what "the US" signifies here. In the 1980s, soybean processing and export concentrated into five multinational companies: Cargill (headquartered in Minnesota), Continental Grain (New York), Archer Daniels Midland (Deactur, IL), Dreyfus (Paris), and Bunge (Sao Paulo). Some have invested in all aspects of soy—from seed, fertilizer, financial capital, and research on the input side, to food, feed, milling, distilling, and composite flour products. They are also involved in transportation and storage of grains, fertilizers, and feed. Because processors are also exporters, they have stirred up cries of monopolist market controls (see page 93).

The Most Recent Incarnation: Gene-spliced Soy

The 1990s is the decade when researchers searched for the perfect soybean or, more precisely, custom-designed soybeans. Some beans have been sexually crossed, others subjected to mutagenesis by chemicals or radiation, and still others altered by gene splicing. Researchers are on a quest to increase crop productivity (with herbicide- and insecticide-resistant varieties); to custom-design varieties for food markets in Asia; to increase and change the qualities of edible oil or protein content; and to better manage the beany flavor and tendency to cause flatulence. In 1996, for instance, the first commercial release of genetically modified soybean seeds made its way into fields across the United States. The Monsanto Company offered farmers a package deal: a soybean ("Roundup Ready") designed to withstand heavy applications of their top-selling herbicide, Roundup. Spliced into the 3,000-year-old genetic makeup of the domesticated soybean were genes of the cauliflower mosaic virus, agrobacteria, and petunia, with combined properties that allowed the crops to survive repeated dousings of the weed killer.

Monsanto scientists argued that they were merely reprogramming "nature's software," and that their new smart seeds would yield heartier, more prolific plants that required less herbicide use (Roundup, they assured, was environmentally benign). And developing crops tolerant to this herbicide would permit elimination of a cocktail of other agri-chemicals, producing savings for the farmers, benefits for the environment, and a solution to the human population's growing food needs. The crop sailed through the US Environmental Protection Agency approval process, and took the farming world by storm. In 1997, just 3 percent of the soybean crop was Roundup Ready. In 1999, according to the Washington Post , 50 percent of the seventy-two-million-acre US soybean harvest is expected to be genetically engineered to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup.

Farmers who grow the agribusiness giant's patented plants must sign a "Technology Use Agreement," which not only stipulates that they cannot save seed from year to year, but also authorizes Monsanto to come onto their land and take samples for three years after seeds are purchased. Hundreds of farmers have already settled with Monsanto (in the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars) for planting patented seeds in violation of the Technology Use Agreement. Other farmers argue that they are not violating

the agreements, but that—out of their control and the company's—genetically altered Roundup Ready seeds are cross-pollinating with other plants as clouds of pollen whisk across fields during harvest season.

"Monsanto made a major mistake with Roundup Ready," argues William Shurtleff, "by introducing a plant with no initial consumer benefit. For example, they could have created a soybean with no saturated fats. The health benefits would have been significant."

For the past half-century the soybean has served as a crucible of sorts, at the center of rapidly changing technologies in industry, international trade, and agriculture. This role will surely carry over into the twenty-first century, as the battle over genetic engineering and the quest for the perfect soybean continue. Will the soybean become custom-designed to accommodate various diets, to provide more oil and protein, or even to prevent certain types of cancer? Will genetic alterations reduce pesticide or herbicide use, render plants sterile, or become the vilified agents of biological pollution? Now long removed from the initial experiments of those early farmers scraping at the soil with sticks and planting wild seeds during the Shang Dynasty, the soybean has journeyed far; a journey that may, in fact, have really just begun.