The Soybean Connection - A Worldwatch Institute Brief
| | Worldwatch News Brief |
| | "THE SOYBEAN CONNECTION" |
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 09, 1999
The United States and China: The Soybean Connection
While reading some months ago about the alleged theft of U.S.
nuclear weapons technology by the Chinese, my thoughts turned to an
earlier transfer of technology from China to the United States: the
soybean. Exactly who the conspirators were in this earlier transfer
remains murky, but whoever spirited the handful of soybeans out of
China and into the United States in 1804 could not have dreamed
that in 1999 the U.S. soybean harvest would be worth $13 billion.
The soybean, which was originally domesticated by early farmers in
central China some 5,000 years ago, has come into its own during
the last half century. The U.S. harvested area of soybeans eclipsed
that of corn for the first time in 1999, moving into first place
ahead of all other crops, according to recently released U.S.
Department of Agriculture data. In value the soybean is now second
to corn, which had a 1999 harvest worth $19 billion. It has long
since surpassed wheat in both area and value.
The United States today accounts for half of the global soybean
harvest, dominating production on a scale that is unique among
major crops. And China, which was once the leading soybean grower,
now produces only one tenth of the total harvest.
The United States is now also the leading exporter of soybeans,
while China is a leading importer. Not surprisingly, nearly two
thirds of China's 1998 soybean imports came from the United States.
In per capita terms, the four billion kilograms of U.S. soybeans
imported into China last year amounted to nearly three kilograms
for each of the country's 1.3 billion people.
For nearly a century and a half the soybean languished in the
United States, grown largely as a garden novelty crop. But just
before the middle of this century, farmers began to expand
production at an extraordinary rate. That expansion continues
today. This year, the U.S. harvested area of soybeans, of some 29.5
million hectares, exceeded the 28.7 million hectares of corn by 3
percent and the 22 million hectares of wheat by 34 percent.
Within the United States, most of the soybeans are produced in the
Corn Belt, often in an alternate-year rotation with corn. Rotating
the crops helps control insects and diseases. And since the soybean
is a legume, it fixes nitrogen, a nutrient for which the corn plant
has a ravenous appetite. If the Corn Belt were being named today,
it would be called the Corn-Soybean Belt.
Growth in world production of soybeans dwarfs that of any other
major crop over the last half century. The 1999 world soybean
harvest is projected at 159 million tons, a nine-fold increase over
the 17 million tons harvested in 1950. This compares with a
tripling of the global grain harvest during the same period.
Because soybeans supply their own nitrogen, yields are not as
responsive to the use of fertilizer as are those of corn, wheat,
and rice. As a result, although soybean yields are rising
gradually, the growth in the harvest comes largely from expanding
the planted area. Worldwide, the area planted to soybeans expanded
from 15 million hectares in 1950 to 72 million hectares in 1999, a
The driving force behind this phenomenal growth in soybean output
is the expanding global appetite for animal protein. World meat
consumption has expanded five-fold since 1950. As the demand for
beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy products has soared, so too
has the demand for protein meal to supplement grain in livestock
and poultry rations. A modest amount of soybean meal added to grain
fed to animals greatly enhances the efficiency with which they
convert the grain into animal protein. When we eat pork, beef,
chicken, eggs, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream, we are often
indirectly consuming soybeans.
The soybean saga is the story of the right crop in the right place
at the right time. By 1999, the world soybean harvest exceeded that
of all other oilseeds combined, including peanuts, sunflower,
olives, rapeseed, cottonseed, and coconuts. Although coconut oil
looms large in the vegetable oil economy of Southeast Asia, and
olive oil has long been a table oil standby in the Mediterranean
countries, it is the soybean that dominates the vegetable oil
Worldwide, less than one tenth of the soybean crop is used for
food. The bulk of the harvest is crushed to produce soybean oil and
soybean meal. The meal that is left after the oil is extracted was
once the secondary product, but because of the strong demand for
animal protein, and hence for protein feed supplements, the meal
that is left after the bean is crushed to get the oil is now worth
more than the oil itself.
Today the leading user of soybean meal is the United States at 27
million tons per year. In China, which is in second place with 11
million tons, soybean meal use is doubling every five years,
tracking the surge in meat consumption. Much lower in meal use are
Brazil, France, and Japan.
Soybeans are also the source of soy sauce, a ubiquitous ingredient
in Asian cuisine, especially in Japan and China. The brown soy
sauce is produced by crushing a mixture of soybeans and wheat that
then undergoes yeast fermentation in saltwater for several months.
For vegetarians, soybeans are often consumed in meat substitutes,
such as veggie burgers. The consumption of tofu, a leading soybean
product that was once confined to Asia, is now a worldwide
phenomenon. In China, nearly two thirds of its 1998 soybean harvest
of 14 million tons was eaten directly by people.
Although the soybean originated in China, it has found a welcome
ecological and economic niche in the United States. U.S. farmers
are deeply indebted to the Chinese farmers, who improved the
soybean through selective breeding over several millennia, making
it a leading source of farm income.
As incomes continue to rise in China and as a projected 300
million more people are added to the country's population, the
Chinese will consume more and more pork, poultry, and eggs,
requiring ever-expanding imports of soybeans. China is almost
certain to become progressively more dependent on U.S. soybeans in
the years ahead, making the soybean connection between the two
countries even stronger.
LESTER R. BROWN  is president of the Worldwatch Institute, a
Washington, DC-based research organization.
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