The Miracle Bean? The Soybean in Global Perspective, 1870s - 1960s

Ines Prodöhl

In 1918, the USDA started a campaign to promote cooking with soy among American housewives due to wartime shortages. At that time, most soybeans were still imported from Manchuria.
In 1918, the USDA started a campaign to promote cooking with soy among American housewives due to wartime shortages. At that time, most soybeans were still imported from Manchuria.

Soon after the Asian soybean crop became known in Europe and America, agriculturalists and nutritional experts deemed it miraculous. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, people used the term “miracle bean” to describe the plant’s versatility. Indeed, in addition to the soybean’s proteins, which made it a viable alternative to meat, the chemical characteristics of its oil allowed a great variety of uses, including in cooking, margarine, soap, dynamite, plastics, candles, paint and varnishes, and waterproof fabrics. The soybean could also make an excellent animal fodder and fertilizer. Moreover, soy did not require much attention during the growing season, and the harvest was easy to store. In short, the bean was not only versatile but also cheap.

Despite early appreciation for soy among experts, the bean made its way to American und European customers only as a consequence of economic and political turmoil in the twentieth century. Soybeans advanced when other commodities grew scarce in the face of two World Wars and the Great Depression. The aim of this project is to analyze soy in the context of the crises that spurred its spread outside Asia. This perspective reveals soy as a politicized crop whose cultivation and use were highly regulated, especially in Germany and the United States.

Long before it went to war, the Nazi state, for instance, encouraged the plant’s cultivation in southeastern Europe. The regime also fostered scientific research on plant breeding so that soy could be cultivated in the German climate. In urgent need of proteins and oils, the Nazis looked to soy to help solve its supply problems. For its part, the U.S. looked to soy when war in the Pacific cut off access to its main sources of tropical oils. Government regulations encouraged the domestic cultivation of soy. Soon, American farmers in the Midwest turned their arable land into huge soybean fields, with regulations and government contracts channeling most of the soy crop to margarine production. By the end of the Second World War, the United States was serving about two thirds of the global soy demand, and soy had become one of the nation’s most important cash crops. 

Despite the soybean’s importance, it remained invisible and unappealing to the European and North American public. It never became integral to Western societies and identities. The once revered plant came to be seen as a mere substitute. At the same time, it did not withdraw back to Asia. On the contrary, to this day, no other country produces more soy than the U.S. This project investigates the global commodity chain of soy from China via Europe to North America as well as the cultural meanings bound up with the crop in the Western world.