Nature Bulletin No. 543-A November 9, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Our common farm crops almost all came from plants which were first
domesticated in prehistoric times and distant countries. Within the
memory of most farmers, another foreigner -- the Soybean -- has moved
into fourth place and surpassed dozens of other farm and garden
products. Never before in the history of American agriculture has any
crop made such strides in such a short time. Increasing from only a
thousand acres grown in 1914, for seed, today these beans are harvested
from over 20 million acres. Illinois produces more than any other state
and Decatur, where huge processing plants are located, is known as the
soybean capital of the world.
The soybean is a native of China where it has been cultivated for about
5000 years. Its wild ancestor is a trailing vine unlike the upright bushy
plants of most cultivated varieties. The soybean is a legume. It is not a
true bean but no one has found a better name for it. Modern soybeans
are from two to three feet high, have leaves with three leaflets, and bear
short fuzzy pods each usually containing two or three beans. These
seeds, when ripe, are nearly globular and vary in color from black or
brown to green and creamy white. Most modern varieties have golden
yellow seeds. They contain about 40 percent protein -- twice as much as
ordinary beans -- and 20 percent oil, of which ordinary beans have
Soybeans do not readily become tender when cooked in water.
Orientals, during their long history, have found many other ways of
preparing them. In the form of sprouts, soy sauce, paste, soybean cheese
and curd they have been an important source of protein in the diet of
Chinese and Japanese for centuries. Also, after boiling, the beans are
ground with water to produce a "milk", as nutritious as cows' milk,
which is delivered regularly in bottles in Chinese cities. Our familiar
soy sauce is a brown salty liquid made by fermenting soybeans and rice
for periods from 8 months to 5 years. It has a meaty tang. As human
food, the soybean can be nearly a complete diet in itself.
In 1804 the soybean was brought to the United States but it remained
little more than a botanical curiosity for almost a century. Then it began
to be grown as forage for cattle and as green manure for increasing soil
fertility. Until World War I little thought was given to the bean itself
and its two main products -- soybean oil and soybean meal.
The boom in soybean farming and processing of the beans started in
1922 when the A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, previously
concerned with corn starch, began such operations in Decatur.
Soybeans thrive best on the soils of our Corn Belt. In only 30 years,
high-yielding varieties together with improved farming and processing
methods have doubled both the number of bushels harvested per acre
and the yield of oil per bushel. Today, over a hundred processing plants
produce half of the vegetable oils used in the nation and two-thirds of
the oil meal proteins fed to livestock and poultry. Hundreds of other
soybean products now enter into the things we eat or wear or use in our
daily lives, and the end is not yet.
The soybean is a meat without bones; a meat that grows in a pod.
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Update: June 2012