The soybean, known as a “miracle crop” for its versatility in different climates and the flexibility of its use in by-products, ranks among the United States’ top crops. While the plant traces back to China in the 11th century B.C., the United States emerged as the world’s biggest soybean exporter in the 1950s. But it took a long history of fits and starts for soybeans to become a dominant American crop.
The earliest known attempt to bring soy crops to America was in 1765 by a farmer, Samuel Bowen, according to Matthew D. Roth, assistant director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America.
Bowen would figure out a way to grow the crop in Savannah, Georgia to use for soy sauce. Following that effort, there were scattered unusual applications. For instance, Civil War soldiers used soybeans as a coffee substitute, calling them “coffee berries.” “I have the impression that was a mail-order scam, which received mixed reviews,” Roth says.
Soybeans were also ground up into a wheat flour substitute to use in a low-starch bread alternative for diabetics but were mostly used as cattle feed. They got a boost in 1904 when American agricultural scientist, George Washington Carver, determined that soy offered a valuable source of protein. He also endorsed the idea that rotating crops with soybeans could improve soil quality.
“World War I provided an impetus to use soy foods as a substitute for scarce meat,” says Roth. “The US government sent a Chinese citizen, Yamei Kin, to China on a mission to investigate tofu and its uses. Home economists at the USDA and elsewhere developed recipes for soybean loaves and hash, but in general, cooks found soybeans tough to cook.”
Roth says that one of the earliest champions of soy-based health foods is the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the early 20th Century.
“It ran a number of health sanitariums and colleges,” Roth says. “These institutional customers for imitation meat and milk products provided a steady source of income to Adventist food factories, which also then supplied a network of health-food stores which grew beginning in the 1930s. Adventists started offering canned green beans in the 1910s, imitation soy meats in the 1920s and soy milk in the 1930s.”
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One of the strangest uses of soy was by Henry Ford. Ford was so taken by the crop that, in the 1940s, he planted thousands of acres and directed his company to create a car from soy-derived plastics, but these experiments were halted when World War II began. He also had a suit made out of soybean protein fibers, which he modeled for magazines. Ford called in George Washington Carver to help with those projects.
In the Great Depression, soy was commonly refined and included in human food as an oil. This practice continued and Roth points out that soy became a pervasive hidden ingredient in the American diet when, following World War II, the public paid less attention to its existence. Only instances like a Nixon-era embargo of the crop really ever brought it to the forefront.
“Soy was becoming a major part of the American diet, providing a rapidly growing share of the fats Americans ate and an underpinning to the meat industry,” Roth says. “But in its journey from farm to fork, soy lost its identity, refined into generic salad oil or margarine or transformed, by way of livestock, into pork, chicken, beef and milk.”
Chinese food was popular in the U.S. beginning in the early 20th Century and reigniting in the 1970s, but is often overstated for its role in leading the establishment of soy in the American diet. That honor goes to the counterculture.
“Soy foods did not cross over into the mainstream until the 1960s and 1970s when non-Asian hippies popularized tofu as a politically conscious vegetarian food,” says Roth. “In the 1980s, tofu built a reputation as a cholesterol-free meat and milk alternative among health-obsessed yuppies, who flocked to Tofutti and similar products. By the 1990s, the discovery of phytochemicals in soybeans – thought to combat certain forms of cancer – lent soy, itself, the aura of healthfulness, helping to drive a market in soy milk, soy-protein bars and a growing array of health foods.”
In 2018, the soybean ranked among the top 10 crops in the United States, with 300,000 producers nationwide. Because of the dominance of the crop in the country and the fact that China consumes more soybean products than any other nation, it also became a prime target for tariffs.
In the 2018 trade duel between the U.S. and China, Chinese tariffs caused soybean prices to plummet more than 22 percent. While the tariffs were taking their toll on U.S. soybean farmers, the crop’s prominence in the international trade skirmish reveal how far the crop has come since its early appearance in an isolated soy sauce effort in Savannah, Georgia in 1765.