A college student prepares a bowl of instant chicken Ramen noodles, a cornerstone of cash-strapped college cuisine. She decides to upgrade her meager meal to what she calls ‘poor-man’s pad thai’ by adding a dollop of peanut butter blended into the broth. As she eats her meal, she passes time reading the package ingredients, and learns that both the noodles and flavoring pack contain soy. She reads her peanut butter label, and discovers that it contains soybean oil. She looks at the label of the Campbell’s chicken noodle soup she had considered eating instead, and learns that it contains soy protein isolate. She looks further and discovers that the water-packed tuna she ate for lunch contains soy. The microwave popcorn she snacks on later as she studies into the late night contains—not surprisingly—soybean oil. Soy is ubiquitous and inescapable.
Soybeans, a protein-packed legume—considered by many as a health food and by others as a health threat—are produced and consumed worldwide by both humans and animals. Relatively little soybean production is used directly in food products for humans; most meal derived from soybeans is used for livestock and poultry feed, which then becomes meat that feeds people. Soybean oil is used in a variety of foods and products and in industrial applications as well.
Soybeans originated in China thousands of years ago, and were introduced to Europe and then to America in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that product proliferation and usage of soybeans increased rapidly, especially in the United States (U.S. Soybean Export Council 2011). This demand surge that began with WWII, generated by wartime demand for protein meal and oil worldwide, was further fueled by the post-war economic and population booms that followed the end of the war (Soyatech, LLC 2012). The Western hemisphere has become the world’s primary soy growing region, with the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina the world’s top three soy producers. The Western hemisphere now accounts for around 80% of worldwide soybean production (Brown 2013), and the US and Brazil vie for position of #1 soybean producer in recent years. China, Japan, and the European Union are large importers of soybeans and key customers of Western hemisphere growers.
The rapid rise in production South America in the past few decades, which now accounts for around half of global soy production, has led to large-scale clearing of rainforests. This not only destroy the habitats of plants, animals, and humans that reside in these forests, but has large-scale ramifications to the entire world because rainforests “help regulate the global climate, most notably by absorbing and storing vast quantities of carbon…By acting as carbon 'sinks' and 'reservoirs,' rainforests help moderate [global] atmospheric carbon dioxide levels” (Losing Our Rainforests n.d.)
Soybeans grow in moderate to sub-tropical climates, and planting and harvesting timing depends on the location—in...