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Soy: How a Little Bean Became Known Around the World

Soy: How a Little Bean Became Known Around the World
Global soy cultivation has increased twelvefold to 349 million tons in recent years.

The soybean polarizes: miracle plant or devil’s weed? An alternative to meat and also ecologically valuable due to the nitrogen enrichment in the soil, some say. Others say that their cultivation destroys important habitats – especially in the rainforest. As animal feed, it is already problematic because it further increases global meat consumption and thus CO2 emissions.

Global soy production has increased more than 12-fold from 27 million tons in 1960 to 349 million tons in 2022. Soy has become the third most important crop globally behind wheat and corn.

Austria is now also involved in production: 50 years ago, it was barely noticeable in agricultural statistics, but soy has now become the fourth largest arable crop in terms of area. Currently it is mainly grown in Burgenland as well as in Upper and Lower Austria. According to Ernst Langthaler, Professor of Social and Economic History at Johannes Kepler University, the potential cultivated area is increasing every year due to rising temperatures in the face of climate change. “The warmer the soils are, the more suitable they are for soy.”

Langthaler has been working on the little bean that has conquered the world for years. A three-year research project led by Langthaler is also exploring the history and triumph of soy in Austria and around the world. An international conference is also planned at the JKU in October.

According to Langthaler, the name Friedrich Haberlandt is inseparable from the beginnings of soy cultivation in Austria: in 1873, the then professor of plant production learned all about the benefits of soy at a stand at the Vienna World Exhibition. The first – unfortunately unsuccessful – cultivation attempts on local soil were the result.

From Asia to the world

In Southeast Asia, soybeans have been part of the regional cuisine for thousands of years. From there their journey around the entire globe began. At the end of the 19th century, the whole world discovered its advantages, and thanks to the railways and steamships, it suddenly became an export product.

For European taste buds, the fruit initially “took some getting used to,” says Langthaler. In the years of crisis and famine between 1914 and 1945, their protein wealth seemed to be a solution to feeding the population. Even back then, soy milk, soy flour and soy bread were propagated as cheap nutritional alternatives – “with little success,” says Langthaler.

After the Second World War, the soy plant finally reached the American continent, especially the USA, which became the main exporter. Over the past thirty years, however, South America has increasingly come to the fore as an exporter – at the expense of the untouched landscape, as Langthaler says. In addition to the rainforests, the steppes are also being increasingly pushed back by growing soybean cultivation. The use of soybeans has changed fundamentally due to increased meat consumption: “Animal feed has turned from a source of fat and protein for humans.” Soy is more suitable than any other plant for the rapid fattening of livestock – at a comparatively low price on the world market.

According to Langthaler, as a food for humans, soybeans have an “actually good” ecological footprint: “The calories produced per square meter are higher with soy than with most other grain products.”

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