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Factfile On... Soya


Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] New Internationalist 329[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] November 2000[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

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Harvesting soya the traditional way in Zimbabwe. Photo: David Reed / Panos SOYBEANS were cultivated in China before 3,000 BC and were considered so important as to be one of the five 'sacred grains' along with rice, wheat, barley and millet. The different varieties have names like Great Treasure, Brings Happiness and Yellow Jewel. Missionaries brought soya back to Europe in the seventeenth century but climatic and soil conditions meant they were hard to grow. Soya arrived in the US in the early nineteenth century as ballast aboard returning ships but Soya farming there only expanded following the Second World War during which production in China had been devastated.

Growing beans
Today, 110 million tonnes of beans are produced worldwide.

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[image, unknown] There are over a thousand varieties of Soya

[image, unknown] Hectare for hectare soybeans yield more protein than meat. A hectare of soybeans yields 162 kilograms of protein, 18 times more protein than it would yield if the same hectare were devoted to feeding cattle to produce beef. Yet soybeans are not a major part of diet in rich countries. In the West soybeans are grown mainly to feed animals, with the oil by-product used as margarine, vegetable oil, mayonnaise and other dressings.

[image, unknown] Henry Ford said that he would rather ‘grow cars than mine them’. By 1935 Ford assembly lines were pumping 30 litres of soybeans into each vehicle as paint, body materials and oils. And by 1940 Ford had produced a complete car body made from Soya-based plastic – though oil-derived chemicals soon took over.

[image, unknown] 70 per cent of all herbicides used in the US are sprayed on soybeans and corn.

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Some Soya uses

Tofu, plastic, soy sauce, cooking oils, margarines, flour, chocolate, ice-cream, bread, biscuits, Soya milk, pet foods, baby foods, breakfast cereals, pasta, soups, pizza, sweets, vegeburgers, soap, detergents, plastics, CFC-free cooling agents, skin creams, gelatine capsules.

Healthy Soya
Soybeans are rich in iron, B vitamins, calcium and zinc, as well as protein. Their oil is polyunsaturated, has a low level of saturated fatty acids and is said to reduce cholesterol.

... and GM Soya
Soya was one of the first foods to be genetically modified (GM) so as to need less herbicide. A big row ensued as soybean farmers in the US said they couldn’t separate GM from non-GM Soya and campaigners argued for the right to know what they were eating. In 1998 the European Union required food products containing GM Soya to be clearly labelled. Greenpeace estimates that more than 60% of processed food — from ready-to-eat meats to vegetarian sausages — uses GM Soya in some form or another.

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New Internationalist issue 329 magazine cover This article is from the November 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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