The Miracle Crop

So after talking with the researchers at SoyMeds for the North Carolina Science Now story Just a Spoonful of Soybeans, I started to wonder just what soybeans are used for and why so many people call soybeans “The Miracle Crop.”

But first, a little history.

As far as anyone can tell, the first soybeans were planted by a colonist/farmer near Savannah around 1760. By 1770, Benjamin Franklin records sending soybean seeds to a botanist, John Bartram, to test in his garden in Philadelphia.

By the middle of the 1800s, soybeans were being grown throughout the Midwest, although they were primarily used as another source for hay.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that agricultural scientist George Washington Carver studied the soybean and discovered its multitude of uses. It was just in time. World War II marked the beginning of the widespread use of soybeans as a major feed and oil crop in the U.S. 

It turns out the soybean is about 18% oil and 38% protein.

The folks at the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association tell me the crop is grown in all 100 counties in the state. That works out to about 1.6 million acres. It’s the crop that has the largest footprint in the state and in a good year, it is worth about $800 million to farmers. 

Most soybeans are processed for their oil, which can be refined for cooking and frying foods. Margarines, salad dressings, and many baked goods contain soy oil. Bottles of soy cooking oil can also be bought. Soymilk is also popular with those who cannot digest dairy milk.

With additional processing to remove the glycerine, soybean oil can also be processed into bio-diesel fuel.

The fiber that remains after the processing is toasted and prepared into animal feed. The poultry and swine industries are the biggest users, although soy fiber is fed to all animals. The fish food industry is also turning to soy for additional feed.

And if that wasn’t enough, the building products industry is also turning to soy. An industry called biocomposites is replacing the wood that is traditionally in products with recycled newspaper and soybeans. Those products include items made with particleboard and laminated plywood. In addition, soy-based wood glues are now being used in those items.

Now I can totally understand that term, “The Miracle Crop.”

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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