EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Eroding Soils and Shrinking Cropland: The Land Hungry Soybean

Sometimes the competition for land to produce grain comes from unexpected sources, such as the soybean, which has emerged as a strategic player in our modern food economy. Widely consumed as food, it is now also the leading vegetable oil for table use and the principal protein supplement for livestock, poultry, and fish rations.

Roughly one tenth of the world soybean harvest is consumed as food, mostly as tofu, as a meat substitute in veggie burgers, or as other products, such as soy sauce—a ubiquitous ingredient in East Asian cuisines. One fifth of the harvest is consumed as vegetable oil. In 2002, the world's soybean harvest exceeded that of all other oilseeds combined, including olives, peanuts, sunflowers, rapeseed, cottonseed, and coconuts. Although coconut oil looms large in the vegetable oil economy of Southeast Asia and olive oil has long been a standby in the Mediterranean countries, it is soybean oil that dominates the world vegetable oil economy.35

When crushed, the soybean yields roughly 20 percent oil and 80 percent meal. Over the last 50 years, soybean meal has emerged as the world's dominant protein supplement in livestock, poultry, and fish rations, exceeding the use of all other high-protein meals combined. The incorporation of small amounts of high-quality soy protein into feed rations boosts sharply the efficiency with which pigs, poultry, and fish convert grain into animal protein, making the soybean invaluable.36

The soybean, domesticated in Central China some 5,000 years ago, was imported into the United States in 1804. For nearly a century and a half the soybean languished in the United States, grown largely as a garden novelty crop. But then following World War II, as the global demand for vegetable oil and for animal feed protein supplements soared, U.S. farmers began to expand production rapidly, quickly eclipsing the output in China. In 1973, the soybean harvested area in the United States overtook that of wheat. It surpassed corn in 1999. The U.S. 2002 soybean harvest was worth $13 billion, nearly twice that of wheat.37

Rather quickly, the geographic focus of soybean production had shifted to the New World. By 1990, the United States was producing half of the world's soybeans, most of them in the Corn Belt, often in an alternate-year rotation with corn. In Brazil and Argentina, which have discovered in recent decades that the soybean is well adapted to their soils and climate, production has also climbed, collectively overtaking that of the United States in 2003.38

Worldwide, the soybean harvest expanded from 17 million tons in 1950 to 194 million tons in 2002. (See Figure 3-1.) This 11-fold gain compares with a threefold gain of the world grain harvest during the same period. Nearly all the growth in grain production since 1950 has come from raising grain yields, whereas the 11-fold increase in soybeans depended heavily on a sixfold increase in area. Because the soybean, a legume, devotes much of its metabolic energy to fixing nitrogen in the soil and to producing high-quality protein, yields have risen slowly compared with those of grain. We get more soybeans by planting more soybeans. Given the role of the soybean in boosting the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein worldwide, producing more soybeans is essential. But satisfying the growing demand for them will nonetheless take additional land.39

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35. USDA, op. cit. note 29.

36. Ibid.

37. Grain areas from ibid.; soybean prices from USDA, FAS, Oilseeds: World Markets and Trade (Washington, DC: May 2003).

38. Soybean production from USDA, op. cit. note 29.

39. Figure 3-1 from ibid.


Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute