The Mighty Soybean Seeks a Foothold in Africa

Published on: 13:31PM Dec 04, 2019

Among the most widely planted crops around the world today, the soybean was a relatively late arriver.  It was first cultivated in north China in about 1,100 BC.  This 3,000-year lifespan compares to a 10,000-year history for wheat and roughly 8,000-years for corn, as described in a blog I posted in March of this year.

For most of that three-millennia history, the soybean (Glycine max) was crop grown near its point of origin in China and a few other countries in Asia such as Japan, primarily as a livestock feed.  Soybean seeds obtained in China were first planted in North America by a farmer in colonial Georgia in 1765.  Benjamin Franklin, whose fascination with scientific discovery led him to found the American Philosophical Society in his home town of Philadelphia in 1743, sent soybean seeds to a friend in 1770.  In an accompanying letter, he described a food made from them that he referred to as “cheese”, which historians believe was the first reference to tofu in American history.

Soybeans were cultivated as a minor crop in the United States throughout the 19th century, serving primarily as silage to feed animals.  Its value as a source of both oil and protein was first elucidated by Dr. George Washington Carver, an African-American plant scientist at Tuskegee University in Alabama who was looking for alternative crops for farmers in the South to grow in the early 20th century.  He also identified the nitrogen-fixing characteristics of soybeans, which makes it a good crop to incorporate in crop rotations because it helps to enhance soil fertility.

Despite Carver’s findings, the cultivation of soybeans as a major crop in the United States did not take off for another few decades.  An important driver of the emergence of soybeans came in 1922, when the first facility dedicated to crushing soybeans into its oil and protein components was established in Decatur, IL by the AE Staley Company.  At the time, American farmers were planting less than one million acres of soybeans annually.  U.S. soybean acreage started growing at that time, and growth exploded during World War II, when the federal government actively encouraged livestock producers to incorporate less animal-based protein in their feed rations because of increased overseas demand for meat to feed U.S. troops fighting in two major theaters of war.   By the end of the war, American farmers were cultivating nearly 14 million acres of soybeans, according to the 1945 Census of Agriculture. In recent years, soybeans have been cultivated on between 80 and 90 million acres in the United States, occasionally surpassing corn as the top crop in terms of planted area. 

Soybeans were planted on an experimental basis in several South American countries in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but wider interest in the crop was spurred by the volatile condition of global food markets during World War in this region as well.  The industry took off in the 1970’s as the government of Brazil established a federal research corporation, EMBRAPA, to focus on developing agricultural products suited to the nation’s climate and economy.  Between 2013 and 2017, total harvested area of soybeans in South America averaged 139 million acres, exceeding North American soybean area by more than 50 percent.  Part of that advantage accrues from the fact that the warmer climate in soybean-growing areas in South America allows farmers to plant two crops per year, and the practice of double-cropping soybeans is quite common.

An effort is now underway to encourage more farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to cultivate soybeans. Extensive research has shown that a significant share of the region’s population is suffering from protein deficiency--on average, dietary protein consumption in Africa was only 62 grams per day as of 2007, nearly 20 percent below the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended level.  Increasing the supply of domestically produced soybeans in Africa will help in three ways--
•    Provide more soybean meal to feed livestock, increasing the animal protein supply
•    Provide more soybean oil and soy protein to feed humans, and
•    Generate more revenue for farmers growing the soybeans.

U.S. international agricultural research and development programs have played a crucial role in this effort.  The International Soybean Program (INTSOY) was established on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1972 as part of USDA’s National Soybean Research Laboratory, with a mission is to improve human nutrition around the world through the expanded use of soybeans.  Part of its work involved participation in the International Soybean Variety Experiment, supported by funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  Current efforts to introduce the soybean as a choice for African farmers has relied heavily upon varieties developed at the International Soybean Program and by scientists working at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a CGIAR center headquartered in Ibadan, Nigeria.
 INTSOY’s work at the University of Illinois on developing soybean varieties suitable for growing in warmer climates such as Africa has been continued under the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research.  The Innovation Lab was established in 2013 and in September 2018 received additional funding and a three-year extension from USAID to support their work.  Working closely with the IITA and scientists from various National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in African countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, the lab’s plant breeding specialists are developing high-yielding, disease-resistant soybean varieties suitable for cultivation in those countries.