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How a Chinese Crop Became an American Winner

September 25, 2018 in History

By John Seven

The soybean originated in China, but its history in the U.S. has ranged from an experimental crop to a Civil War coffee substitute, to a leading U.S. export.

Soybean plants on a Maryland farm.

The soybean, known as a “miracle crop” for its versatility in different climates and the flexibility of its use in by-products, ranks among the United States’ top crops. While the plant traces back to China in the 11th century B.C., the United States emerged as the world’s biggest soybean exporter in the 1950s. But it took a long history of fits and starts for soybeans to become a dominant American crop.

The earliest known attempt to bring soy crops to America was in 1765 by a farmer, Samuel Bowen, according to Matthew D. Roth, assistant director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America.

Bowen would figure out a way to grow the crop in Savannah, Georgia to use for soy sauce. Following that effort, there were scattered unusual applications. For instance, Civil War soldiers used soybeans as a coffee substitute, calling them “coffee berries.” “I have the impression that was a mail-order scam, which received mixed reviews,” Roth says.

Soybeans were also ground up into a wheat flour substitute to use in a low-starch bread alternative for diabetics but were mostly used as cattle feed. They got a boost in 1904 when American agricultural scientist, George Washington Carver, determined that soy offered a valuable source of protein. He also endorsed the idea that rotating crops with soybeans could improve soil quality.

World War I provided an impetus to use soy foods as a substitute for scarce meat,” says Roth. “The US government sent a Chinese citizen, Yamei Kin, to China on a mission to investigate tofu and its uses. Home economists at the USDA and elsewhere developed recipes for soybean loaves and hash, but in general, cooks found soybeans tough to cook.”

Roth says that one of the earliest champions of soy-based health foods is the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the early 20th Century.

“It ran a number of health sanitariums and colleges,” Roth says. “These institutional customers for imitation meat and milk products provided a steady source of income to Adventist food factories, which also then supplied a network of health-food stores which grew …read more


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