Field of soy in the American Midwest.

Having grown up in the heart of the Corn Belt, I can remember childhood visits to kin requiring car rides for hours past fields planted with razor-sharp rows of maize. Even as a preschooler, it was reassuring because I could relate to corn. It was that delicious stuff that my great-uncles would pick and send home for our dinner.

Occasionally, however, our rural family jaunts would take us past some squat green stuff. Even traveling 60 miles per hour, dad only needed the barest glance to identify one field as hops, another as soybeans.

Hops, again, I could relate to–if only indirectly. It somehow flavored the beer my grandpa served to card-playing guests while someone else was dealing out the next hand of pinochle or schafsköpf.

But soy beans: There was a mystery.

Radio broadcasts listed them in nightly commodities’ reports, so they must be important. As I grew older, I began to wonder what color soy’s seeds were. And could you eat them like green beans, fresh off the vine, or did they get packaged dry like kidney beans? Dad always laughed at such ruminations, pointing out that these were not a grocery product. They’re feed, he’d say, they’re for livestock, not people.

Maturing pods of soybeans.

As I learned much later, soybeans not only serve as the basis for much Chinese and Japanese cuisine but also may offer protection from a range of chronic diseases, particularly heart ailments. Ironically, though Western scientists have begun to laud the nutritional value of these humble legumes, most U.S. consumers–at least throughout the farm belt–still take my dad’s view: “Feed ’em to the pigs.”

What farmers don’t scoff at, however, is soy’s soaring economic value. Among crops, it has become second only to corn in U.S. cash sales–and is now the #1 crop in terms of exports. In fact, the 25.6 million metric tons of U.S. soy shipped overseas last year accounted for 60 percent of soy exports by all countries.

Not surprisingly, the legume is also beginning to dominate on farms.

This year, a record 74.5 million acres of U.S. farmland were planted with soybeans, notes Mark Ash with the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C. That’s 3.5 percent more acres than were planted with wheat this year, and 98.5 percent as many acres as were planted with corn. Based on the price forecast for these commodities, this season’s soy yields should gross $13.8 billion over the next year, an increase of $1.5 billion over last year’s value.

A gift from China

Though soy has been a part of Chinese agriculture for some 5,000 years, it only arrived in the United States in 1804. Ironically, it had served as ballast for a Yankee clipper ship, which would eventually fill its hold with U.S. products to bring back to China.

The first U.S. cultivation of soy didn’t occur for another 15 years. Though the legume is loaded with oil and protein, U.S. growers at that time saw its only value as a source of soy sauce.

By the end of the 19th century, however, livestock farmers realized soy offered an inexpensive proteinaceous forage, and they began planting more. Around World War II, foreign sources of edible oils–then providing some 40 percent of U.S. sales–became unreliable. Domestic farmers responded by beefing up production of soy to 5 million acres.

Today, soy accounts for 52 percent of seed-derived oil globally and 46 percent of that soy oil comes from seed harvested in the United States. Domestically, it’s become even more dominant. Soy is now the source for 82 percent of the nation’s edible fats and oils.

Though soy goes into feed for swine and many other animals, it also makes healthy fare for people. Increasingly, soy is also finding a number of commercial uses, from inks to adhesives.

Increasingly, soy is also beginning to find commercial applications. Industrial uses include adhesives, resins, plastics, paints, inks, fatty acids, soap, diesel fuels, and solvents.

Still more a feed than food

The United States became a major player in soy production over the past half century, when acreage planted with the crop increased fivefold. Ironically, the driving force in this increase “is the expanding global appetite for animal protein,” observes Lester Brown, an agricultural economist and board chairman of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. Indeed, he points out, less than 10 percent of the global soybean harvest goes directly to feed people.

“As the demand for beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy products has soared,” he says, “so too has the demand for protein meal to supplement grain in livestock and poultry rations.” Growing interest in soy meal–the mashed protein residues left when the oil is extracted–now brings in more U.S. income than the oil itself.

In the United States, 48 percent of soybeans provide meal to feed livestock. Of this, 44 percent–some 12.4 million metric tons–fuels the growth of poultry. Swine eat another 24 percent, and cattle some 13 percent more. Most of this soy was grown in what has traditionally been termed America’s Corn Belt, Brown observes, often in an alternate-year rotation with corn.

At nearly 450 million bushels, soy harvests from Illinois, where I came from, now run second only to Iowa. In both states, soy now accounts more than one-third of the income from all principal field crops.

With the way trends are headed, I should probably think about redefining myself as a daughter of Soy Land.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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