The Soybean Connection

Did the United States acquire the soybean from China by illicit means?

November 14, 2000

Did the United States acquire the soybean from China by illicit means?

Whoever spirited the handful of soybeans out of China and into the United States in 1804 could not have dreamed that in 1999 the U.S. soybean harvest would be worth $13 billion.

The soybean, which was originally domesticated by early farmers in central China some 5,000 years ago, came into its own during the last half century. The harvested area of soybeans in the United States eclipsed that of corn for the first time in 1999, moving into first place ahead of all other crops, according to recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture data. In value, the soybean is now second only to corn, which had a 1999 harvest worth $19 billion.

Soybeans have long surpassed wheat as a crop in both area and value. The United States today accounts for half of the global soybean harvest, dominating production on a scale that is unique among major crops. And China, which was once the leading soybean grower, now produces only one-tenth of the total harvest.

The United States is now also the leading exporter of soybeans, while China is a leading importer. Not surprisingly, nearly two-thirds of China’s 1998 soybean imports came from the United States. In per capita terms, the four billion kilograms of U.S. soybeans imported into China last year amounted to nearly three kilograms for each of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

Viewed against this dramatic size of the soybean, it is remarkable to note that, for nearly a century and a half, the soybean languished in the United States. It was grown largely as a garden novelty crop. But just before the middle of the 20th century, farmers began to expand production at an extraordinary rate. That expansion continues today.

Within the United States, most of the soybeans are produced in the Corn Belt, often in an alternate-year rotation with corn. Rotating the crop helps control insects and diseases. And since the soybean is a legume, it fixes nitrogen, a nutrient for which the corn plant has a ravenous appetite.

If the Corn Belt were being named today, it would be called the Corn-Soybean Belt. Beyond U.S. borders, a similar dynamic can be found. Growth in world production of soybeans dwarfs that of any other major crop over the last half century. The 1999 world soybean harvest is projected to reach 159 million tons, a nine-fold increase over the 17 million tons harvested in 1950.

The driving force behind this phenomenal growth in soybean output is the expanding global appetite for animal protein. World meat consumption has expanded fivefold since 1950. A modest amount of soybean meal added to grain fed to animals greatly enhances the efficiency with which they convert the grain into animal protein. When we eat pork, beef, chicken, eggs, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream, we are often indirectly consuming soybeans.

The soybean saga thus is the story of the right crop in the right place at the right time. Soybeans are the source of soy sauce, a ubiquitous ingredient in Asian cuisine, especially in Japan and China. The brown soy sauce is produced by crushing a mixture of soybeans and wheat that then undergoes yeast fermentation in saltwater for several months.

For vegetarians, soybeans are often consumed in meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers. The consumption of tofu, a leading soybean product that was once confined to Asia, is now a worldwide phenomenon.

In conclusion, although the soybean originated in China, it has found a welcome ecological and economic niche in the United States. U.S. farmers are deeply indebted to the Chinese farmers, who improved the soybean through selective breeding over several millennia, making it a leading source of farm income.

As incomes continue to rise in China and as a projected 300 million more people are added to the country’s population, the Chinese will consume more and more pork, poultry, and eggs, requiring ever-expanding imports of soybeans. China is almost certain to become progressively more dependent on U.S. soybeans in the years ahead, making the soybean connection between the two countries even stronger.

All of this makes for an enticing reversal of a possibly illicit technology transfer out of China and to U.S. shores. For which Americans still haven’t paid a single dime. Rather the opposite. The Chinese now pay for U.S. imports of soybean. Lucky deal, if you can get it.