A Bean to Feed the World?

The soybean could—if we were a world of vegetarians. It is rich enough in protein to replace meat, but now it is fed mostly to animals.

We continue to sing of amber waves of grain, not dusty pods of beans; but soybeans, not wheat or corn, are the United States’s number one cash crop, and by 1985, they are expected to occupy more acres than any other crop we grow. We harvested more than 1.3 billion bushels-78 billion pounds—of soybeans in 1974, 80 percent of the world’s supply. We sent about half of our crop to Japan, Europe, China, India, Pakistan, and a dozen lesser countries, and kept the other half at home. Yet few Americans have ever seen a soybean. Soybeans are part of our diet but not of our cuisine, and only food faddists eat them plain. The annual world crop could satisfy the protein requirements of 800 million people, but we and our customers use it instead to feed chickens and cattle and swine. Mysterious bean: Most of us know it only as smoky chips of imitation bacon or as a mealy and tasteless party snack. We also know it, though we may be unaware we do, as margarine and cooking oil. Its continued export will help us solve our balance of payments problem, but the priorities other countries assign to its use are as wasteful as our own. The soybean is a study in contradictions. Spokesmen for American farmers like to call it their miracle crop. It is, rather, a sort of vegetable Candide.

The soybean is small and glossy and spherical, the size and shape of a dried pea. In its preferred varieties, it is pale yellow, the yellow relieved of tedium by a streak of black at the bean’s equator, at the site of its seed scar. Its hull is also very like a pea’s, peeling off easily to release two splits, two halves, that are the reservoirs of the bean’s riches. Like other peas and beans—pulses, they are collectively called-the soybean is a legume. Which means, first, that the plant fixes more nitrogen in the soil than it uses for growth—the rule of thumb among farmers is one pound of nitrogen added for each bushel of beans taken away—and second, that the soybean is proteinaceous, not starchy, and contains an average of 40 percent crude protein. Compare beef and fish at 18 percent. The soybean contains three times as much crude protein as eggs or whole wheat flour, eleven times as much as whole fresh milk. Measured against the cost of its production, its nutritional value makes it one of the cheapest foods available to mankind.

The plant from which the soybean grows—Glycine soja or Glycine max, depending on whose nomenclature you prefer—looks much like other bean plants, with heart-shaped leaves branching from one or more central stalks that attain a maximum height of about three feet. Soybeans, however, hang not from the branches, but from the central stalk itself, pods appearing in clusters at a series of nodes that form successively as the stalk lengthens upward. The pods are pubescent—hairy—and usually contain three beans each, two large, one smaller. The flowers, which form on the nodes at each successive stop, are no larger than a match head and usually purple They are self-pollinating, making it extremely unlikely that hybrid soybeans will ever be developed in commercially useful quantities. In an era when hybrid corn generally produces a harvest of 100 or more bushels to the acre, soybean yields in the United States average only twenty-nine, though good farmers with good land can push those yields as high as fifty or sixty. The average is low, and has increased from year to year by only fractions of a bushel, and isn’t likely to increase much faster in the years ahead. Therefore, soybeans must pay three times the return of corn to be competitive with corn, and except in the best years, they hardly do. At their high point last year, soybeans returned almost nine dollars a bushel: an astronomical figure until you consider that corn, three times as plentiful on each acre where it is grown, returned three.

Soybeans require good soil, a growing season of about 115 days, early moisture, and protection from early autumn frosts. They are a logical Corn Belt crop, and it is in the Corn Belt that they are primarily grown. Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Ohio are the seven leading states in soybean production, but twenty-three other states devote significant acreages to soybeans. Kansas, where I live, is thirteenth in soybean production in the United States, and produces more soybeans than the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe together. Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas could feed the entire United States if we lived on vegetable protein alone.

I take Kansas as an example. To see how soybeans are grown there, I visited the Robert Manson farm outside Bonner Springs, Kansas, only twenty miles from Kansas City as one travels west along the valley of the Kansas River.

Bob Manson is a strong, youthful man of fortyseven who grew up on an Iowa farm, served in World War II, tried his hand at other work, and went back to farming when he and his wife had children. “We wanted our children to grow up in the country,” he says, but he also wanted to farm again, work he likes better than any other, and he does as well as any farmer in the United States. He and his son, with whom he farms in partnership, have won prizes—a trip to Europe, a trip to Japan for their high soybean yields, yields of more than sixty-nine bushels to the acre on specially tended five-acre plots.

Manson rents 1000 acres of land in the rolling country south of the river valley, good soil that was once tail-grass prairie. He lives in an old white farmhouse, set half a mile back from the highway; to get to his house, you drive through a spectacular grove of walnuts and oaks, where Boy Scouts often camp on weekends. Almost all Manson’s acreage is devoted to row crops, milo and soybeans, though he also plants some wheat and runs a few head of cattle. He plants soybeans in midMay, rotating them with milo at intervals of about three years. “I never put all my eggs in one basket. That way, if one crop goes bad, I’ve got the others.” He has planted soybeans in June, and even, in fields from which he has just harvested his wheat, in early July. Soybeans planted late respond to the delay by shortening their period of vegetative growth and catching up. They can be harvested only days after much earlier plantings are mature.

We walked through one of Manson’s exceptionally clean fields in early September. The soybeans were in bloom and beginning to pod. Manson’s rows run twenty-eight inches wide, the most convenient width for his combine; the trend, he says, is toward narrower rows, so that the plants will overshadow the weeds and keep the sun from drying out the soil. He drills his soybean seed into the ground with a grain drill, simultaneously dressing the soil with phosphorus and potash fertilizer, and later dresses the field with herbicides: Weeds can easily turn a profitable field into a lost field, because the margin of profit on soybeans is so narrow.

Soybeans are a drought-resistant crop. Manson’s beans survived last summer’s July drought nicely, whereas his milo was damaged enough to reduce yields by as much as 20 percent. Soybeans are drought-resistant because their roots grow four or five feet deep into the soil, and because they spend a considerable portion of their growing days in a state of vegetation, producing leaves and stalks, but not blossoms or pods. Kansas soybeans don’t ordinarily blossom until late August or beyond, by which time late summer storms usually make up for July and August droughts. Once the plants blossom and begin to pod, they need water, and research at Kansas agricultural experiment stations has been directed toward developing soybean varieties that match the Kansas climate. Research has also been done at state universities and experiment stations in other regions for their respective climates, and new varieties are introduced almost every year.

Manson harvests his beans in early October, when the pods are full and hard and brown, when the stalks are dry and the leaves have fallen to the ground. They look pitiful then, as scraggly as weeds. In 1974, in Kansas, they barely escaped being damaged by frost before they had a chance to mature, because frost came early, in mid-September. In more northerly states, the early frost was more severe; Iowa and Indiana especially suffered. Like other farmers, Manson waits for harvest until the beans’ moisture content has dropped to 13 percent, because buyers deduct twenty cents a bushel for excess moisture, which can cause the beans to mold or rot in storage. The harvest, by combine, is a time of back-breaking labor, of getting up at five A.M. and running the combine all day and driving the trucks to the elevators at night and going to bed at midnight and getting up again at five; running against the weather, running against rain that would mean waiting a day or two for the beans to dry out again, or even against snow; running against the two weeks after maturity when the beans are likely to fall off the stalks and be lost on the ground. A good tractor costs $15,000, a good combine $25,000. Soybeans return a profit most years, but not all.

If soybeans were not in such great demand, if they weren’t so useful for weed control and nitrogen renewal in rotation with corn and milo (corn and milo are grasses, soybeans broad-leaved plants: Herbicides that kill one kind of weed protect the other, so rotation gives each crop a clean field), if they weren’t such an excellent hedge against one-crop disasters like the 1974 drought, if their planting and harvesting times didn’t fall so conveniently between the planting and harvesting times of other, more lucrative crops, they wouldn’t be planted at all. Those are major ifs: Planted soybeans are, and planted they will be, so long as their price stays high. But they’re too new a crop to evince much nostalgia in farmers. No one loves a soybean except the Chinese and the Japanese, who learned to convert it to delectable sauces and palatable curds eons ago.

A bushel of soybeans, sixty pounds, contains about forty-eight pounds of soybean meal and eleven pounds of crude soybean oil (the other pound is waste). Neither oil nor meal is a by-product of the other, as cottonseed oil is a by-product of cotton production, or lard a by-product of pork production, and the fact that expanding markets exist for both the oil and the meal accounts for the soybean’s success. Export demand for edible oil and protein meal increases by about 10 percent per year; domestic demand increases by about 4 percent per year; we plant more soybeans to meet both demands. Soybeans have never been in surplus, and with U.S. production down 19 percent in 1974 (because farmers thought 1974 would be a good year for corn, which it wasn’t, and because of bad weather), they may even be in dearth.

We use soybean oil in cooking—the growing number of fast-food chains in the United States has added a whole new area of demand—and as margarine. We use soybean meal, properly processed, in some of our processed foods. But the primary use of soybean meal in the United States is for animal feed, and that is a use to which the rest of the world has recently turned. It was not always so. Feeding soybeans to animals is an American invention.

The soybean evolved, and was domesticated, in Asia. The Chinese considered it, along with rice, wheat, barley, and millet, a sacred grain, and written advice for its cultivation can be found in Chinese records more than 4000 years old. A few Europeans cultivated it in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but it doesn’t grow well in Europe, where the dry season corresponds to the soybean’s planting time, because the bean must absorb twice its weight in water in order to sprout. American farmers showed no interest at all in soybeans until the end of the nineteenth century, when the Department of Agriculture turned to scientific farming, decided that soybeans might be valuable as hay and silage and for green manure (grown and plowed back under), and introduced a large number of varieties from Asia and Europe. George Washington Carver experimented with soybeans, as he did more notably with peanuts, and was impressed with their protein content, but soybeans were first grown as a cash crop in the United States for their oil, and even that use developed slowly. When the United States found itself short of fats and oils during World War I, processors imported Manchurian soybeans to be pressed, believing American beans inferior.

Not until 1924 did the USDA begin reporting annual acreages and harvests of soybeans. They were scanty then: 448,000 acres, 5 million bushels. Processors pressed the oil; they couldn’t give the meal away. In the 1930s, a few American processors installed solvent extraction systems, developed in Germany, that used hexane to remove 99 percent of the soybean’s oil, and the less efficient presses went the way of the water mill. Acreage devoted to soybeans increased slowly but annually. Margarine came of age during World War II and after, and still there was too much meal. We were feeding cattle cottonseed meal and tankage (dried slaughterhouse wastes) then. Soybean production for meal as well as oil began its soaring growth only in the 1950s, when increasing American affluence brought with it an increasing hunger for meat, and the poultry industry expanded and the feedlot system of fattening cattle and swine came of age. With soybean meal as a protein supplement in feedlot and poultry-house hoppers, one bushel of corn can almost be made to do the work of two. Between 1959 and 1972, soybean acres doubled. As high as meat prices are today, they would be much higher if we hadn’t learned to use soybean meal for livestock and poultry feed. There isn’t enough cottonseed meal or tankage in the land to feed all the animals we raise.

The world market, recovering more slowly from the ravages of war, became a factor later, the minuscule market for soybeans as human food later still. The technology for spinning soy protein like nylon, for turning it into fibers that resemble the fibers in meat, was patented in 1957. The process that converts soybeans into textured soy-protein concentrate, the form in which it is commonly added to meat, was patented in 1970. By that year, soybean meal accounted for 66 percent of the total protein supplement led to domestic poultry and livestock. We thus use the world’s cheapest source of protein to grow the world’s most expensive. Candide would want an explanation for that.

Soybeans are not, by themselves, a complete human food, though they come closer than most. They contain all eight amino acids essential to human nutrition, but they are low in one—methionine. They contain, in their raw state, antinutritive factors which, fortunately, can be destroyed by heat. They are high in lysine, and that proportion is fortuitous, because cereal grains such as wheat and corn, which contain adequate methionine, are low in lysine. The Mexican diet has long been based on beans and corn for just this reason of complementarity, and cereal grains and soybeans together constitute a complete and balanced source of human nutrition. That is why the AID (Agency for International Development) portion of the United States’s Food for Peace Program has recently been promoting a flour called Wheat-Soya Blend (WSB) for use in schools and by pregnant and nursing mothers in underdeveloped countries. We give it away, but few countries yet buy the stuff: Those that can afford to buy at all buy the beans, because they want to make meat. The former agriculture editor of the Kansas City Star, Roderick Turnbull, who is now director of public affairs for the Kansas City Board of Trade, the area commodities market, puts it bluntly: “The whole world,” he says, “wants to eat better, meaning first enough, and then meat. ” So also in the United States, where the demand for both oil and meal is still growing faster than the population: We’ve converted to vegetable oil, but not to vegetable protein. Less than four percent of our annual soybean harvest goes directly into the food we eat, and most of that is additives and extenders, not meat substitutes, not the bean itself.

I he conversion of soybeans to food for humans is worth looking at. It isn’t important now, but it’s likely to become so. To make soy products for human consumption, processors select U.S. grade number 1 and 2 beans, clean them, crack them, dehull them, and crush them into flakes. The flakes go to solvent extractors, where the oil is dissolved away. Dried, they can then be ground into soy flour or grits that contain about 50 percent protein (“flour" refers only to particle size, because soybeans contain no dough-forming compounds). Further extraction dissolves away most soluble carbohydrates to produce soy-protein concentrate, which is about 68 percent protein. Soy-protein concentrate, in turn, can be cooked up to a thermoplastic and extruded like spaghetti to make textured vegetable protein, TVP, the form that is most commonly added to ground meat. TVP can be flavored and spiced to suit the client: I saw some that was lime green, and tasted like green peppers.

More elaborate extraction results in isolated soy protein, which is 90 percent protein and is used in coffee whiteners and whipped toppings. Isolated soy protein is the basis for spun soy protein, the material that produces lifelike imitation cubes of “chicken” and “ham.” Not many of us find the idea of “chicken” and “ham” appealing, even though the early astronauts consumed such stuff manfully along with their Tang, “Please be sure you make clear,” the director of marketing for the FarMarCo Corporation, an outfit that makes TVP, told me three times in a brief interview, “that we’re interested in augmenting meat, not replacing it.” Well, the man has cattlemen on his board of directors, but the USDA estimates that the total market in meat analogues (substitutes) will be no greater in 1980 than it is today, and given our hunger for red meat, the USDA is probably right. So the analogues are there, but we don’t want them; the analogues are there, but they’re expensive, and the countries that might find them useful can’t afford them. As it so often does, technology has spun wonders before their time.

The world market for agricultural products is a controversial market. Labor, thinking of the working man’s pinched wallet, would like exports restricted. Farmers want them wade open. Their spokesmen and their publications say so, and the soybean farmers I talked with vehemently say so, say they won’t even plant the damned beans, can’t afford to, unless the price stays high. They are caught up in the peculiar nature of the beast: Unlike corn or milo, soybeans don’t respond to nitrogen fertilization; added nitrogen merely puts the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the nodules on the soybean’s roots to sleep, and the yield with or without the fertilizer is much the same. “It’s a good thing, too,” I heard an agricultural scientist tell a group of soybean farmers at a Soybean Field Day in southeastern Kansas, “because we need that nitrogen for our corn.” He’s right, we do, but add to the soybean’s indifference to nitrogen its resistance to hybridization, and you have a prima donna of a crop, one that is important to farmers but also, in a sense, marginal. The world market keeps the price up and makes soybean farming profitable and therefore possible, but the high price of soybeans, made higher by the expense of converting them into meal, also helps keep the price of meat up; and we long with all our hearts to lower the price of meat.

The farmer’s scenario, possibly vengeful, reads like “This Is the House That Jack Built”: Limit exports of soybeans, and you may temporarily lower the price of meat, but you will certainly also lower the price of soybeans, and with it the production, and with the production the domestic supply of poultry and livestock feed, and with that the domestic supply of poultry and livestock, and then where would meat prices be? Farmer Jack, bankrolled by foreign relatives, built the house, and Farmer Jack, who is benevolent but not suicidal, could also tear it down.

Even modest tampering with the structure has its dangers. Japan, our best soybean customer, needs and demands a reliable source of oil and protein meal. In 1973, when we embargoed soybean exports because we feared we wouldn’t have enough for ourselves, the Japanese turned in desperation to other sources of oil and meal, to rapeseed from Canada, for example. Despite the fact that the present administration in Washington is committed to a policy of open exports, the Japanese are still considering alternatives. Fish meal is competitive with soybean meal on the world market, and soybean growers living on dry land in the American Midwest benefited enormously in 1973 from the disappearance of fish off the coast of Peru. Soybean exports increased by 50 million bushels that year. The fish are back, but the market now appears to be big enough for both: In 1974, for the first time, the People’s Republic of China bought American soybeans, 33 million bushels, about as much as the Soviet Union bought the year before.

The world market was never more interdependent than it is today. In 1972, for example, when the Soviet Union decided to buy wheat from the United States rather than ask its own population to tighten its belt, we suddenly discovered that there wasn’t enough wheat to go around in the world at the low prices we had been paying farmers. “We found ourselves,” says a former USDA official, “like it or not, sharing food scarcity with 248 million Soviet consumers.” As if to emphasize that scarcity, the world grain reserve reached a new low in 1974, twenty-six days, down from ninety-five days in 1961, primarily because of bad weather in the United States and a shortage of fertilizer in Asia.

World demand for U.S. grains is largely a function of growing world affluence. The Soviet grain order in the fall of 1974, which the Ford Administration expeditiously reduced by more than 50 percent, included a considerable amount of wheat, but the bulk of it was corn and soybeans for animal feed. Whether for animal or human consumption, foreign demand for American grain has become a hot economic and political issue, but it’s doubtful that any administration can practically limit grain exports in the long run without making things worse than they already are.

Farm exports are more vital to us than they have ever been: Soybeans, for example, represented 10 percent of the value of all U.S. exports in 1974. Soybeans and other commodities bring our dollars home, and our potential for agricultural production is greater than the potential of any other nation in the world.

Comes, then, another trade-off, not butter for guns—Samuelson’s classic—but steaks for oil. Our oil needs drain our dollars: The price of foreign oil increased 300 percent in 1974. Our farm exports return our dollars. As our farm exports grow, so does our ability to buy the oil and other raw materials we need, or think we need, from abroad. But we ate, last year, each of us, 116 pounds of beef, far more than any other people in the world. We want to eat still more. Domestic meat production demands grain and beans that might otherwise be exported. We can’t grow more beans by increasing acreages, because we’re already farming most of the available cropland in the United States. We aren’t using it as efficiently as we might, but increased efficiency is primarily a function of fertilizer and irrigation, and both require oil: one for its manufacture, the other to run the pumps. Furthermore, we don’t like to see food prices increase: We have become fanatic about food prices, believing they measure for us the day-to-day impact of inflation. To the extent—and it is the greater extent—that they reflect increased processing and middleman costs, that belief is accurate. But to the extent that food prices reflect a long overdue adjustment to a world market where scarcity, not surplus, is the order of the day, that belief is misguided. A world market of scarcity might seem to argue for restricted exports, but restricting exports would not only hurt our balance of payments, eroding purchasing power even more; it would also make it likely that farmers would plant other crops until scarcity was the order of business at home as well as abroad—that is, until prices got back up to at least marginally profitable levels.

We are beginning to feel the pressure of these conflicts. Farmers planted fewer acres of soybeans last year than the year before because they wanted the acres for corn. In December, the USD A installed a new grading system for beef that has put what is essentially grassfed beef in the supermarket. Cattlemen even predict that corn-fed beef will shortly be relegated to the gourmet case, where its price will match prices for corn-fed beef in Europe. Steaks sell there for as much as five dollars a pound.

Enter soybeans again, by the side door. A few supermarket chains have begun selling TVP-ground beef blends. In one extensive market test, such blends quickly took over from 20 to 30 percent of ground beef sales. They sold for from fifteen to twenty cents less per pound. The USDA expects vegetable protein to replace 20 percent of red meat in processed foods—chili and hot dogs and bologna—by 1980. The National School Lunch Program now authorizes the use of TVP, up to 30 percent, in meat dishes, a potential 26 million lunches a day. Manufacturers of TVP are going after the institutional market—schools and hospitals and retirement homes—hot and heavy, and they are making headway. That means, among other things, that the palates of our children are being trained to accept the taste of beans in their sloppy joes. The next generation may even prefer it, as many of us seem to prefer margarine.

Increasing crop yields is not a simple matter, not in the United States, where yields are already the highest in the world; not in the underdeveloped countries, where yields are desperately low. The underdeveloped countries must, in effect, industrialize to improve their agriculture, because fertilizer and mechanization are their basic tools. We have a more subtle problem, and soybeans are an extreme example of that problem. Bob Manson described it to me. “This Treflan,” he said, referring to a popular herbicide, “controls shattercane, but it costs $130 for five gallons, which gives us twenty acres of coverage. Then we mix Cencor”—another herbicide which controls other weeds—“with it, which costs $6.43 a pound, and that’s a real fine buy because at the end of the season it was up to $10 a pound. You put one pound of Cencor with one quart of Treflan. So consequently, you’ve got $17 an acre just in chemicals; then, if you’ve got $8 or $9 in fertilizer and $9 in seed, you’re in the neighborhood of $35 an acre, and that’s not counting work, machinery, interest, land rental, taxes. All that has to come out of there. We have to get a good yield or we haven’t got anything to show for our effort.” The problem is marginal profits in an industry where the most important variable, the weather, is exempt from quality control, is still an act of God. And don’t say Don’t use herbicides: Soybean yields drop down to thirteen bushels an acre or less without herbicides.

The solution, if there is a solution, is more research, better varieties, possibly a breakthrough or two. Between 1960 and 1974, average U.S. soybean yields increased less than five bushels to the acre. We spend ten dollars on the space program for every one dollar on agricultural research.

We want more meat, but the cost begins to pinch us. The developed world, Japan and Europe and the Soviet Union, wants meat, and is willing to buy our soybeans in order to have it. The underdeveloped world wants any protein it can get, but can’t afford our beans, much less our processed concentrates. Our program, apparently, is going to be threefold: Go back to grass-fed beef, the beef our forefathers chewed; mix vegetable protein into our processed foods; and let our institutional population eat analogues. That is a solution born of luxury. The developed world, in the meantime, appears determined to increase its meat supply by depending on our exports (and those of Brazil, a country whose potential for agricultural production is almost equal to ours, and whose soybean harvests have increased from 15 million to more than 176 million bushels in the past decade). The underdeveloped nations, left holding the empty bag, can’t even stay abreast of their populations, much less think about meat. It’s an ugly picture, and it comes with an uglier forecast of feast on the one hand and famine on the other. Emergency grain reserves won’t significantly change that forecast, nor will gifts of U.S. grain—not so long as those gifts serve as substitutes for agricultural development in the countries that receive them. In the long run, at least, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz is right; we will serve humanity best, emergencies excepted, by giving away technology, not food.

Half the world’s population lives almost entirely on vegetable proteins. Vegetable proteins, the soybean first among them, could easily feed the other half as well, now and in the foreseeable future. With fully efficient agriculture and a vegetable diet, the world could theoretically support a population of forty to fifty billion people. Meat proteins couldn’t even support the population we already contend with, but meat proteins, or rather meat, the world clamors for. As the cannibal said to the Christian, It’s a matter of taste. Yet we might remember, as we proceed to the feedlot, that the finest cuisine in the world, the Chinese, is also among the cheapest. It works miracles with soybeans, and it considers beef hardly at all. □