Soybeans Return to China

Ironically, soybeans originated in the Orient. They began to be a crop in northeastern China about 900 years ago, but Chinese had already been making tofu (soybean curd) and other foods from them nearly 2,000 years before, presumably from beans gathered in the rough. Wild soybean species are still found in this area.

American missionaries returning to the USA from China in the late 1800s brought them back as a novelty food item. It wasn’t until fifty years later that soybeans started to become a commercial crop on American farms. The earliest US soybean processors persuaded livestock farmers to enrich feed rations with high protein soybean meal. Soybean oil slowly gained acceptance in American kitchens. Acreage expanded swiftly through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

My grandfather grew soybeans a few times in the 1930s to make hay for his central Illinois dairy cows. However, he found that he prefered birdsfoot trefoil and alfalfa for the hay he fed to his herd. Later on, my father and uncle began to grow soybeans for the market. This was after they returned from the second world war. Most of the neighboring farms grew them for the market, too.

Meanwhile, back “home” in China, soybeans were still mostly a subsistence food item during the time they were developing as a cash crop on American farms. Every peasant had a sow and a chicken or two, feeding them on kitchen scraps and garbage.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that China widely began to utilize soybean meal as an ingredient to improve livestock feeds. Today they consume nearly ten times as many soybeans as they grow themselves. Imports from the western hemisphere get them about 90% of what they now need.

China’s hog production ballooned over the past three decades. According to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the USDA, China had 31% of all the pigs in the world in 1987. Today that percentage is above 55%. Along with this intensification in hog production, the need for high protein soybean meal to improve feed quality ballooned also.

China continues to consume soybeans as human food (tofu and other products), now up to 12 million tons annually. That is probably more than any other country on earth. This need appears to be met primarily with their domestic soybean crop. Food soybeans are still grown in small plots on peasant farms, but not every peasant has a sow anymore. These have been moved into large-scale confinement facilities.

Expansion in South American soybean production has provided a large portion of the imports now needed by China. Starting with a few fields of soybeans in far southern Brazil in the early 1970s, millions of additional hectares in several other states across Brazil were brought into cultivation. Argentina and Paraguay have also expanded their soybean production. It would be nice to think this was in response to the global need for improved diets. However, it was mainly the pursuit of profitable farming opportunities that led to this expansion. China’s gain in disposable income was more likely the driving force.