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Soybeans: The Success Story*

by Theodore Hymowitz


Watching ballerina Natalia Makarova effortlessly float across the stage is awe inspiring. On the sport scene, watching Edwin Moses attack each hurdle on his way to another victory is poetry in motion. The common experiences of a Russian prima ballerina and an American world class hurdler are obvious, both were not instant successes. Rather, they have spent years practicing and patiently developing their skills."

Likewise, there are very few instant success stories in the history of dissemination of food, feed fiber or industrial crops from one region to another. As Professor Ho, an historian at the University of Chicago, has aptly written (1955), "It is foolish to believe that a certain plant can be introduced into a new area only once, and then only by a certain route. A new plant may score an immediate success in one region and remain neglected in another for a considerable time. Sometimes only through repeated trial and error can a new plant strike root. Sometimes a new plant may actually be introduced more than once:

Before discussing the successful rooting of the soybean in the U.S., perhaps it would be useful to review the historical roots of the crop and trace the paths of dissemination from its primary gene center in China to selected regions.


The history of the dissemination of the soybean is of course only partially known. It is not uncommon for soldiers of fortune, ship captains, traders, travelers, religious emissaries and government officials to leave few or no records. Nevertheless, enough information is known about the dissemination of the soybean in order to establish a skeleton framework. For specific regions or areas, the detailed information about the introduction of the soybean will need to be fleshed out by local historians.

Linguistic, geographical and historical evidence suggest that the soybean emerged as a domesticate around the eleventh century B.C. in the eastern half of north China. Domestication is a process of trial and error and not an event. In the case of the soybean, this process probably took place during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1700-1100 B.C.) or perhaps earlier. By the first century A.D. the soybean probably reached central and south China, as well as peninsular Korea. The movement of the soybean within the primary gene center is associated with the development, consolidation of territories, and degeneration of Chinese dynasties.

From about the first century A.D. to the Age of Discovery (15-16th century), soybeans were introduced into several countries and land races developed in Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal and north India. These regions comprise the secondary gene center. The movement of the soybean throughout this period was due to the establishment of sea and land trade routes, for example, the silk road; the migrations of certain tribes from China, for example, the Thais; and the rapid acceptance of the plant as a staple food by other cultures, for example, the Indonesians. The earliest Japanese reference to the soybean is in the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) which was completed in 712 A.D.

For centuries, the soybean has been the cornerstone of East Asian nutrition. Although many different foods were developed from the soybean, the four most important are miso, soy sauce, tempeh and tofu. These traditional foods have little physical or flavor identity with the original bean. Thus, it's not too surprising that the first Europeans who visited China or Japan did not mention the soybean as a crop in their journals, for example, Marco Polo.

Starting in the late 16th century and throughout the 17th century European visitors to China and Japan noted in their diaries the use of a peculiar bean from which various food products were produced. The Florentine, Francesco Carletti who visited Nagasaki, Japan in 1597 wrote in his memoirs that the Japanese flavor fish dishes with a certain sauce called misol and that it is made from a bean that is grown in various localities. He also noted that the Japanese make a product called shiro (soy sauce), what Europeans would call gravy. In 1665, Friar Domingo Navarrete described tofu as a common and cheap food of China. "They drew the milk out of the Kidney-Beans and turning it, make great Cakes of it like Cheeses . . . All the Mass is as white as the very Snow . . . Alone it is insipid, but very good dress'd as I say and excellent fry'd in Butter." Occasionally a European was fooled by soybean products. For example, in 1613, Captain John Saris visited Japan. In his log he wrote the following about the food habits of the Japanese. "Of cheese they have plenty. Butter they make none, neither will they eat any milk... " Most probably he mistook tofu for cheese.

In the 17th century soy sauce was a common item of trade from the East to the West. For example, in 1679, John Locke noted in his journal that mango and soy are two sauces brought to England from the East Indies. It was not until 1712, when Engelbert Kaempfer, who lived in Japan during 1691 and 1692 as a medical officer of the Dutch East India Company, published his book Amoenitatum Eroficum , that the Western world fully understood the connection between the cultivation of soybeans and its utilization as a food plant. Kaempfer's drawing of the soybean is accurate and his detailed description of how to make soy sauce and miso are correct.

The soybean reached Europe quite late. It must have reached the Netherlands before 1737 as Linnaeus described the soybean in the Hortus Cliffortianus which was based on plants cultivated in the garden at Hartecamp. In 1739, soybean seeds sent by missionaries in China were planted in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, France. In 1790, soybeans were planted at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, England and in 1804 they were planted near Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. In the Netherlands, France and England the soybeans were grown for taxonomic or display purposes. However, the soybeans grown in Yugoslavia were harvested, cooked, mixed with cereal grain and then fed to chickens for increased egg production.

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* This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend and colleague Prof. dr. Bogdan Belic, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia

Soybeans: The Success Story, Advances in New Crops, Edited by Jules Janick and James Simon, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1990, pages 159-163.


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