Written by Ines Prodöhl.

Evidence that soy had some significance in the Chinese diet dates back some three thousand years. Besides using soybeans for food, indigenous people in Asia had known a variety of applications for the crop, such as for fertilizer, animal feed, lubricant and lighting. For centuries, however, this knowledge remained in Asia. The global history of soy is much more recent and reveals many aspects of the modern world with industrialised agriculture, labour migration, advanced chemistry, fast transportation, and streamlined processing.

Although soy was known in botanical gardens across Europe for quite some time, it was not before the beginning of the twentieth century that Western societies discovered it on a large scale. All of a sudden, they came to praise its versatility and referred to the crop as  a ‘miracle bean’.

What is the tale behind the bean? When we look at the history of soy, the fact that it has been used for far more than just food comes as a big surprise, indeed. Of course, products such as tofu, soy sauce, and soy milk played an important role in Asian nutrition and are still significant, even outside Asia. Who has never heard about the excellent health benefits of tofu? Who does not know that Starbucks offers soy milk to its customers? And who is not familiar with the funnel shaped soy sauce bottle Kenji Ekuan designed for Kikkoman in the early 1960s? However, when the Western world discovered soy, it was not for its nutritious value but because of its oil, which could be used in industrial and household products.

In 1908, low yields of American cotton and flax, the seeds of which were generally used for the production of margarine and soap, created a persistent demand for alternative vegetable oils in Europe. At only 16 percent, the amount of oil in soy was small compared to other oil-bearing crops; nevertheless, the fact that soy’s market in Northeast China had already been globalised allowed for it to quickly move in to solve the problem. The Japanese company Mitsui & Co., the trading branch of the zaibatsu Mitsui, established itself as one of the first successful firms in the East-West soy trade. In November 1908, Mitsui sent an experimental load of soy from Dairen in Northeast China to the English port of Hull. This shipment was followed by many more.

At first, European mills that processed the soy into oil faced a marketing problem for the protein-rich residue of the milling process, the so-called bean cake. Soon, though, bean cake came to be used in agriculture as animal feed, drastically increasing the demand for it. Consequently, today’s strong economic interest in soy from the United States, Brazil, and Argentina as animal fodder for the protein it contains is the result of intensive demand for soy oil at the beginning of the twentieth century.

While the Western world demanded soy for its oil, Japan had great interest in the crop to fertilise the soil. Japanese rice farmers had typically used fish manure to fertilise their paddies, but herring schools had declined in the Pacific since the late nineteenth century, prompting farmers to seek an alternative. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch had not yet invented synthetic fertiliser, which – once it was on the market – only gradually spread around the world. Therefore, Japanese farmers found bean cake extremely useful. One might consider this a win-win situation, in which soy oil went to Europe and the residue went to Japan. However, as always in global history, things are not this simple.

As global demand for soybeans rose, a region in northeast China then referred to as Manchuria became the crop’s main cultivating area. In the mid-1920s, Manchuria provided about 52 percent of the world demand, while China-proper cultivated and also consumed another 30 percent. In terms of trade and transportation, northeast China was controlled by Japan and Russia, clearly marking it as semi-colonised. Compared to other regions in China, the Northeast profited tremendously from the developments initiated by foreign powers and the global demand for soybeans, but the big money from the cash crop went elsewhere; Chinese companies did not partake in the soybean trade, which, like all other trading, was usually controlled by British or Japanese companies. In addition, oil mills in the West preferred whole beans to slightly processed goods such as soybean oil so that their own industries could profit from technological developments in milling and processing.

This picture changed significantly in the early 1940s, when the progressing global war caused a severe shortage of vegetable fats and oils in the United States. These were needed not only in the production of margarine and soap, but also for salad oils, synthetic rubber, waterproof clothes, candles, plastic, printing ink, linoleum, enamels, celluloid, explosives, and many other articles. With its particular chemical composition, soy could not efficiently be used to make all of these products, but the oil was extremely useful in the production of margarine and soap and freed other oil-bearing crops for different uses. In a minimum of time, American farmers in the Midwest turned their arable land into huge soybean fields, with administrative orders channelling it into the production of margarine. By the end of the Second World War, the United States served about two thirds of the global soy demand, and soy became one of the nation’s most important cash crops besides cotton and maize. Up to this day, no other country produces more soy than the United States.

In this respect, soy was successfully transplanted from Asia to America, but it was also somehow culturally uprooted: while the plant’s cultivation area shifted, the Western use of soy and, in particular, the bean’s separation into its main components, oil and protein, only poorly mirrored the many different ways Asians made use of soy. Sure enough, the milling process hindered the production of soy as a traditional Asian foodstuff, because to make tofu or soy milk, the unprocessed whole bean needs to be fermented and emulsified respectively. While experts and enthusiasts worldwide had always praised the nutritious value of the soybean, it was not before the 1960s and 1970s and the advent of ideas about living better that soy eventually entered the Western diet on a large scale.

Ines Prodöhl is Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington DC. Her research specializes in global economic and transcultural history.  Image Credit: CC by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington/Flickr

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