All About Soybeans: From Your Tofu to the Statue of Liberty

In the 28th century BCE, the great emperor Shennong (ENG: Divine Farmer) was born. According to this Chinese mythology, Shennong paved the foundation for the agricultural society that China was to become. He shared many things with his people, including an extensive list of beneficial and poisonous herbs. Shennong also named five sacred crops which we remain dependent upon today. Among these, the soybean has a special mention and understandably so. Today no other bean in the world has a more significant economic impact than the soybean. 

Though their exact country of origin still carries some uncertainty, it is believed to have already been cultivated around 7000 BCE in today’s China. Similarly, Korea and Japan have a long history of growing this crop. However, after residing in Asia for thousands of years, it was destined overseas to America and arrived in 1804. By the 1950s, the United States became the largest grower of soybeans in the entire world, a title they carried until 2020 when Brazil overtook them. Though its consumption was not instantly widespread among the American population, its popularity increased as a coffee substitute during the American Civil War (1861- 1865). Among the soldiers, the soy substitute was commonly referred to as “coffee berries”. By World War 1 (1914-1918), other use cases for the crop were investigated. Here the goal was for it to replace rare commodities such as meat. However, soybeans were not only of interest to the food and agricultural sector. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford’s automotive company, envisioned a bright future for the little bean. In his vision of “from farm to Ford”, future car parts would be produced our of plastics made from soy. Unfortunately, this development was ended at the beginning of World War 2. During the Great Depression (1929-1933), soybeans were processed to oil which was used to enrich food. Soybean oil can still be found in a wide variety of products today. 


How are soybeans grown?

Soybeans are a part of the pea family and are an annual crop that can be over 2 meters long, depending on its variety. Its flowers are self-pollinating, and the beans it produces can have a large variety of colours from yellow to black and even multicoloured. Typically one soybean pod contains between one and four beans. Though it generally is not as picky compared to others crops, its ideal growing conditions are on the warmer side of the spectrum. Hence the majority of soybean cultivations in the United States are found in the south. The United States produced ca. 113.5 million metric tonnes of soybeans in 2020. Brazil and Argentina have a similar climate and are the other most prominent producers with 133 and 50 million metric tons. In addition to enjoying warmer weather, soybeans grow best in well-drained soil (so-called sandy loam) that is made up of a mixture of sand, clay and slit. Soybeans need a lot of nitrogen, yet in soils where these beans grow, finding nitrogen deficiencies is not as common as other crops. Smal bacteria live in the root nodules of the soybean plants and are brilliant nitrogen fixators. They help take nitrogen from the air and convert it so that the bean plant can use it. 

When the field has been prepared and time for seeding has come (May-June), the farmer will plant the seeds in ca 18 cm wide rows. Here farmers can use larger planters or tractors that can reach over several rows at once. Between four and seven days after the seeds have been planted, the first seedlings emerge from the soil. On their way to becoming large crops, farmers must watch out for many threats that may damage the fragile seedlings, including worms, insects and diseases. When the farmer has evaluated that the infestation threatens the plans wellbeing substantially, action must be taken. The process of evaluating damage or predicting its severity is complicated, and getting it wrong can lead to great economic losses. Using precision farming technologies, farmers can easily survey their fields and receive concrete evaluations of their plant health. Whether it relates to waterstress, pest infestations or a nutrient deficiency, precision technology help farmers detect problem areas on time. Whether the harvest is threatened should not be difficult to determine but done fast and accurately. 

In June-September (depending on the temperature and field location), the soybeans begin to flower. During this period, the fields look especially beautiful and are covered by hundreds of thousands of flowers. This is because the soybean plant produces many more flowers than what, in the end, grow pods. Around the end of September, the beans are ready for harvest. The number of matured pods determines this. How can the farmer tell? When the soybean pod has matured, it changes colour from golden to gray depending on the variety. When about 95% of the pods have such a colour, the leaves have fallen of the plants, and the moisture content of the pods is around 13%, it is time to prepare machinery. If there is a sudden shift in weather conditions that prevent the farmers from going to the field, the moisture levels may fall below 13%. Too little moisture in the plant leads to increased risk in crop losses, e.g. through shattering:

1. Pre-harvest shatter = When the pods open up and the bean contents fall onto the ground before the farmers have had the chance to harvest them. It is impossible to retrieve them from the ground.

2. Sickle-bar shatter = When the weakened pods open up during harvest. Before the harvester has the chance to gather the beans, they are scattered cross the field by merely touching the pods.

Additionally, low moisture levels decrease the weight of the beans. Farmers sell soybeans based on weight hence if conditions become too dry they loose valuable income. 

The easiest way to harvest soybeans is using a Combine Harvester, and as we learned in the previous posts, it makes the lives of farmers a whole lot easier. Upon harvest the soybeans can either be stored, or directly shipped to factories that process it further. What can a soybean be processed into? Anything imaginable, truly. 

Soybean Products

Soybeans are one of the best sources of protein at a much lower price. About 77% of all soybeans end up as animal feed, and the remaining majority is made into oil and fuel. A mere 7% is used directly in human consumption.

Roughly 17% of the bean is made up of oil. 63% is made up of so-called meal and 50% of it is made out of protein. The beans also don’t contain any starch making them a perfect component of meals for diabetic people. It is even possible to bake bread using ground soybeans. The three most common soy products that come to mind are usually soymilk, soy sauce and tofu. Other favourites include edamame (young soybeans – boiled for safety), tempeh and miso. Soybean oil is commonly used in producing vegetarian cheeses and even margarine. However its use cases go beyond the world of food. Its oil can also be used in paints, fertiliser and clothes. Henry Ford used to wear a suit out of soybean fibres. It is even possible to produce fire-extinguishers that contain soybean. In the United States, one of the most famous landmarks takes soybeans to a whole different level, literally. The elevators of the Statue of Liberty are lubricated using soybean oil! 

The soybean truly is a crop that can do it all. Soy while you may not like the taste of tempeh, chances are your favourite product still contains a bit of soy. 

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