Soybeans have had a long and rich history as one of the most important food sources for humans, though the origin of this relationship remains blurred. Its beginning can be traced back to ancient China, Japan and Korea, where it is said to have been domesticated at least 2500 years BC, though some people even suggest 3000-5000 as equally possible (Lee et al. 9). The Chinese used soybeans in a variety of ways, particularly, their seeds, producing oil, or eating dry seeds. However, over the time, the potential uses of the soybeans have increased in variety and richness and the Chinese started producing soya sauce, soy milk, tofu and other foods. China’s earliest document mentioning soybeans is dated 7th century BC, called “The Book of Odes” (Shurtleff and Aoyagi 8). The soybeans first traveled to other countries in Asia.
In 1765, the soybeans were taken to America by a sailor called Samuel Bowen and five years later, by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself, who brought them from France (Qiu and Chang 13). However, in the beginning, the soybeans were used as forage and were considered not fit for human consumption. By the mis-19th century, there were isolated attempts to cook and eat soybeans. A certain Thomas Maslin of Virginia wrote, “they are fine for table use, either green or dry” (Shurtleff and Aoyagi 7). During World War I, due to food shortage, researchers tried to find out which varieties could be eaten and how, but they had little success in convincing Americans that they were good to eat. By the same time, soybeans began to be used for oil production, and for industrial purposes. The de-oiled protein rich cake that was left following oil extraction was found to be good as food also. In time, soya began one of the most important food sources in the world, having been introduced almost in all places where the climate was appropriate. Today’s uses range from traditional Asian recipes such as tofu or soy milk, to protein powders.
Soybeans manipulation started with the domestication of the first plants. The difference between wild varieties and domesticated one consists in appearance and archaeologists noticed a concentration of larger soybeans in deposits in Northern China, a proof of early manipulation of the aliment to meet the needs of the people (Lee et al. 9). Since then, a wide of variety of soybeans was obtained through selection, particularly in the 20th century. For example, China alone has created over 1200 soybeans varieties since mid-20th century, mainly by cross-breeding. However, today, another kind of manipulation takes place, as the soybeans are genetically modified to resist to herbicides. Most of the production in the United States is now biotech, although people do not necessarily trust this process. Therefore, as soon as this process started, producing companies have begun to label their products as non-genetically modified so as to appeal to the buyers. The genetically modified crops are commercially more appealing, as they have increased resistance and tolerance to herbicides, and were introduced heavily in commerce, though they are more difficult to export. Alongside, organic production developed as well, as a response to the demand of the public for clean product, safe from biotechnology.
Because of the important role it holds in human alimentation, soybeans have always been attributed cultural significations. In ancient China (not long following its domestication), this crop was named as one of the five sacred grains because of its malleability and importance as a food source (Shurtleff and Aoyagi 192). It has also considered as essential to the existence of the Chinese civilization. For this reason, the crop was sown during a yearly festival meant to celebrate it, whereas poets praised it in their verses. Today, soybeans continue to represent an important aspect of Chinese culture. The mechanized cultivation methods have dramatically increased the production of the crop but have also increased the scale of farming (Qiu and Chang 17). In the western world, the soybeans are associated with vegetarian diets, which become more and more popular. In addition, soya is extensively used by people who want to lose weight, or by fitness enthusiasts. Soya has become known as healthy food and represents a kind of lifestyle that is beginning to become more and more important as a cultural trend.
Soybeans’ qualities have been recognized more than five thousand years ago, and its popularity has continued to increase and reach further and further. It may be seen today as a culturally important food, particularly because it reflects increasingly popular lifestyles. However, more than any other aliment, soya has become known as a biotech crop, which has hindered its reputation and has pushed many people to reject it. Only the future will be able to say if soybeans will continue to represent one of the most important food sources in the world.
- Shurtleff, William and Aoyagi, Akiko. History of Edamame , green Vegetable Soybeans and Vegetable-Type Soybeans (1275-2009):Extensively Annotated. 2009. Web.
- Lee, Gyoung-Ah et al. “Archaeological Soybean (Glycine Max) in East Asia: Does Size Matter?”. PloS One 6.11 (2011): 1-12.
- Qiu, Li-Juan and Chang, Ru-Zhen. “The Origin and History of Soybean”. The Soybean: Botany, Production and Uses. Ed. Guriqbal Singh. Oxford, OX and Cambridge, MA: CAB International. 2010. Print.