As Confucius said, "It is such a delight to have friends coming from afar."
Dr. Huqu Zhai
President of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences
Chairman of the World Soybean Research Conference VIII Organizing Committee
An important event is taking place in Beijing, China this summer. The World Soybean Research Conference VIII is scheduled for August 8 through August 10. This meeting of multinational soybean producers and policy makers occurs every five years. The soybean a plant of the legume family that emanated from the host country has become an extremely important crop. There have been stunning developments with major global implications in just the last five years that this conference will address. Some of the issues on the agenda are controversial, but, in general, the emergence of this plant has been largely beneficial to mankind and the sustainability movement.
Scheduled to be discussed are biotechnology, the role of soy in animal feed and human health, and sustainable farming practices. The market web of this product makes it a truly global issue. There are presenters from the major players. China and India are the biggest importers. The United States, Brazil, and Argentina are the largest exporters and producers.
Great advances have been made in the area of biodiesel fuel production that uses soy oil as well as canola and recycled restaurant vegetable oil. Dr. Rudolf Diesel would be proud as his engines were originally designed to run on vegetable oil. Biodiesel fuel is usually used in combination with petroleum-based fuel, although it can be used exclusively. The fuel is sustainable and kinder to the environment in many more ways than petroleum. In Massachusetts, you can purchase biodiesel at Burke Oil in Chelsea.
GMO’s, or genetically modified versions of the plant, are a topic of great interest because of the marketing impact. While tremendously efficient in the field, GMOs (introduced in 1996) are not allowed in some major markets, most notably Europe. China, now fourth in exports, finds itself in the curious position of having homegrown soy that is more expensive than imported soy. The reason: China does not allow GMOs to protect the viability of the thousands of varieties native to the country, and they have a shrewd eye on that non-GMO market. The numbers are staggering; China annually imports 30 million bushels and grows 16 million bushels.
GMO’s are also part of a twin controversy in the Southern Cone region of South America. Brazil and Argentina are first and third respectively in soy production worldwide, with dramatic concomitant impact on their economies. Giant tracts of land in these countries are devoted to the raising of soy for a seemingly insatiable Chinese market. Some of this arable land, especially in Brazil, was hacked out of rain forest. Though many see soy as beneficial and a byproduct of the forest razing, there is simmering resentment and concern among ecological activists. Also, GMOs form a monoculture for much of this farmland and that has long-range implications for the sustainability of the land. The amount of production and acreage put in use in Brazil alone are mind-boggling and a quite recent development.
The United States is the second largest grower of soy, with a near record 77.5 million bushels produced last year. The plant was introduced to North America during the great Chinese immigration of the 1800’s. Due to its health and sustainability applications, the plant is rapidly rising in importance in this country. Soy is one of the few plants that have the 8 amino acids necessary for good health. 85% of the product is mashed into animal feed. The remaining 15% has amazing versatility. Candles, inks, paper, milk, hydraulic oil, grease, and biodiesel fuel are some of its many manifestations. The bean is a nutritional superpower—the soy has the highest protein content of any grain or legume, and the plant has a significant quotient of isoflavones that are considered to be very effective cancer fighting agents.
In agriculture, the soybean not only is a great cash crop (the US is the second largest exporter), but also has use in soil management of farms. Legumes such as alfalfa and soy are important rotation crops. As the Romans discovered before the birth of Christ, legumes are a very important asset in the management of farm soil. They used alfalfa crops in between growing grains to “rest” and improve the soil. Thus, addition to being harvestable themselves, the the legumes perform a couple of vital functions that assist soil. The first of these functions is that with their ground cover they aid the decomposition of humus (that part of plants that is desirable to return to the earth). Secondly, the legume roots attract a nitrogen-producing bacteria - an extremely vital function in that, over time, nitrogen is leached from the soil and never satisfactorily returned through the application of human and animal waste. These bacteria actually attract nitrogen from the atmosphere and—though seen as parasitical enemies to the plant—the process is beneficial to the overall soil system.
Far from boring, this little bean has become a major international player in many areas. The conference in Beijing promises to examine processes and policy recommendations with potentially far-reaching effects. While the organization has no power to set policy in the attending countries, its expertise will certainly be given great consideration by the respective policy makers. Suddenly, this ancient plant has been thrust onto the world stage. Impacts to the environment and international market implications are in keen focus. Again, from Confucius: "The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools."