Let Us Think About Soybeans

Photo by United Soybean Board | CC BY 2.0

China has announced that in retaliation for the 25% tariffs imposed on Chinese steel, aluminum and other exports to the U.S. it will impose 25%  tariffs on, among other things, U.S. soybean imports.

Let us think about soybeans.

The humble, high protein, vitamin-B rich legume is important for human health and the health of the world economy. This year soybeans will exceed corn as the most planted crop in the United States. The U.S. currently produces some one-third of the world’s total. But this is of course not the most traditional North American food. Most of it’s not intended for us.

Soybeans were first grown by Chinese farmers from about 7000 BCE. Their cultivation spread around east and southeast Asia by the first century CE, but they were only first planted in colonial America in the 1760s, as an exotic Chinese plant. They were not grown widely in the U.S. until the 1870s and then mostly used as animal feed. The U.S. was importing soybeans from China in the 1930s when the outbreak of war ended the trade, causing U.S. farmers to pick up the slack for the limited domestic market. Soy became a subsidized commodity in 1941, as it remains, meaning that soybean farmers receive government subsidies designed to supplement their income and influence prices.

That North America should ever have become the main supplier of soybeans to East Asia is food for thought. Soybeans have become so widely produced in this country not mainly to satisfy the mounting taste for tofu (which among non-Asian Americans dates only to the 1970s) but in order to supply the region where people first domesticated the bean.

Soybeans are of course a staple of East Asian cuisines. Just looking at the Japanese case: shoyu (soy sauce), miso paste, miso souptofu, Koya-dofu (a kind of spongy dried tofu), edamame (boiled beans in the pod), natto (sticky fermented soybean dish), soybean sprouts, dried natto in those little packages you get on Japanese airlines, all kinds of chips and crisps. It’s an absolutely indispensable Japanese foodstuff, second only to rice. It is also essential in Korean cuisine (e.g. dobu jorim, braised tofu) and Chinese cuisine (e.g. mapotofu) too. Soy oil is one of the mostly widely used cooking oils in the world and has industrial applications. Soy is used in the production of realistically meat-like veggie sausages. You can do anything with soybeans. Tofutti. Tofu ice cream.

Before the end of the Second World War Japan was dependent on occupied Manchuria and colonized Korea for its soybean supply. After the war the U.S. required that Japan reconfigure its trade ties towards itself and its bloc, away from China and Korea as the Cold War progressed. Tokyo became obliged by contract to purchase subsidized soybeans from the U.S.

Soy production had only taken off in the U.S. during the war; from this point production soared to meet the captive Japanese market. By 1960 soybean imports exceeded one million metric tons for the first time; this doubled by 1966, while Japanese soy production dipped to 9%.

Japan remains dependent on U.S. suppliers. But China has long since become the much larger consumer of U.S. soybeans. It buys $ 15 billion in soy products from the U.S. every year. Its tit-for-tat move could spell disaster for U.S. farmers, especially in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana and Missouri—erstwhile Trump country.

Soybean stocks are taking a dive.

China doesn’t need U.S. soybeans; it can buy them from many other countries. What better time than now to cement ties with India, one of the top five producers? Or Brazil, the second largest producer? China is already Brazil’s main trade partner; they are fellow BRICS members and very friendly.  Or Canada?

The Chinese soybean market is one big lucrative market that U.S. farmers might be barred from if Trump has his way. But perhaps his announced measures against China initiating a trade war are as wobbly and hollow  as his vow to get out of Syria soon. Maybe the threats will (as he now implies, if only to soothe the market) lead to negotiations, and everyone will back off, and the stock market will soar. Or there will indeed be a trade war, and we will see what that means. Could mean cheaper tofu at Whole Foods. That would be good for me.

Sit back on your sofa with a bowl of steaming miso, a comfort food comparable to your mom’s chicken soup, and watch global capitalism war upon itself, as it has to do by nature. Inherent contradictions and all.

The inherent contradiction of the soybean issue is that it can be used to express friendship (“Here, eat my beans”) or antagonism (“We don’t need your beans”). The synthesis would be an agreement to eat the beans after the U.S. backs off on steel.

Otherwise this thing could grow and grow like the beanstalk produced by the magic bean in old English tale Jack and the Beanstalk. In that you recall the giant falls to his death when the kid chops the stalk down. Not that that’s relevant to anything.


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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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