The United States and China: The soybean connection

by Lester R. Brown, provided by Worldwatch Institute


hile reading some months ago about the alleged theft of US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 pounds of US soybeans imported into China last year amounted to nearly three pounds 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 US 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.


Growth trends


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 ninefold 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 fivefold increase.


Meating the demand


The driving force behind this phenomenal growth in soybean output is the expanding global appetite for animal protein. World meat consumption has expanded fivefold 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 economy.


Meal, not meals

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. US 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 US soybeans in the years ahead, making the soybean connection between the two countries even stronger.

Lester Brown is president of Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based research organization. The Worldwatch Institute is dedicated to fostering an environmentally sustainable society in which human needs are met in ways that do not threaten the health of the natural environment or the prospects of future generations. Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1904; (202) 452-1999; email; website