Let us think about soybeans

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…

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