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Dramatic soybeans (9/8/19)

by Ron Holdraker
September 17, 2019

Soooo, what could I possibly write about soybeans? That innocuous little bean that has such an impact on our lives. Admit it, while growing up, did any of us know anything about soybeans?

According to soybean history, they originated in China and in 2853 Emperor Sheng-Nung of China named five sacred plants – soybeans, rice, wheat, barley, and millet. Soybean plants were domesticated between 17th and 11th century BC in the eastern half of China where they were cultivated into a food crop. By the 15-16 centuries they found their way to Japan and throughout the Far East. Moving ahead over the years, soybeans came to America in the early 1800s as ballast aboard ship. By 1879 some enterprising farmers thought soybeans would be good food for their livestock. After all, the plants flourished in hot and humid summers. At the turn of the century, around 1900, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted tests and encouraged farmers to plant the low lying bean as animal feed.

Ha, you thought George Washington Carver only messed around with peanuts. Hell, no, he discovered that soybeans were a valuable source of protein and oil. He encouraged farmers to rotate their crops with soybeans. To the surprise of farmers, this produced a better crop. Yes, there are more than 10,000 soybean varieties around the world, but finally in the 1940s the lowly soybean began to garner more attention.

Then came the next breakthrough in the soybean history. Some scientists began modifying the bean and, in its new form, it became a prized bean with numerous uses.

Yup, there is a growing debate that soy products, many now genetically modified, have their problems in human food consumption, but let’s overlook that for the moment.

No question - soybeans have become a product in demand. We now have soy milk, soy yogurts, tofu, oil, soy flour and more processed food products than we can imagine. 

Whoa, don’t forget about soy sauce.

There are all kinds of health positives that scientists will hit us with. By 1997, about 8% of all soybeans became genetically modified to resist bugs, diseases and everything in between. That percentage has grown wildly over the past 20 years. In 2010, a team of American scientists announced they had sequenced the soybean genome, the first legume to be sequenced. Hooray for us!

Among the legumes, the soybean is valued for its high (38–45%) protein content as well as its high (approximately 20%) oil content. Soybeans are the most valuable agricultural export of the United States. Approximately 85% of the world’s soybean crop is processed into soybean meal and soybean oil, the remainder processed in other ways or eaten whole.

One of the major uses of soybeans globally is still as livestock feed, predominantly in the form of soybean meal. In the Far East  soybeans are a major part of human dietary meals.

Okay, let’s get off the history stuff and discuss whether soy is good, bad, or indifferent. Soybeans as a cash crop is where this is headed.

When President Trump announced a tough stand on China and other trading partners, soybean farmers took a hit. Seems those Far Eastern farmers, who first discovered the uses for soybeans, could not even grow enough to keep themselves happy. Now remember, it takes years to develop and nurture trading relationships for such products as soybeans and tit for tat tariffs cause buyers to go shopping.

I yearn for the days before tariff wars. They just don’t help friendly trading relationships. Bottom line, if I can’t buy my soybeans from you for a great price, I’ll go somewhere else. Yes, the same is true for corn and other products, but for this column, I don’t care.

Soybeans have become an international phenom. Billions of dollars cross the seas in just about every direction in the search for soy. Lately, we have become concerned about the Brazilian rainforest. Seems enterprising farmers and corporations are clearing thousands of acres per week and planting...soybeans! What a shock! You mean that vegetable (?), or whatever, is becoming a universal environmental bad ass contributor?

Oh, for the days when simple Jack traded a cow for some magic beans. Hey, Jack, those modified soybeans are growing bigger and faster than ever. Pretty soon they’ll reach for the skies. Oh, sure, the sky won’t be blue anymore and massive changing climate conditions will eventually make us develop a soybean that will grow in garbage and methane but that is progress. Meanwhile, I’ll eat my daily intake of soybean enriched cereal and stuff.

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