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Versatile and cheap: a global history of soy in the first half of the twentieth century*

  • Ines Prodöhl (a1)


This article traces the complex and shifting organization of soy's production and consumption from Northeast China to Europe and the United States. It focuses on a set of national and transnational actors with differing interests in the global and national spread of soybeans. The combination of these actors in certain spatiotemporal contexts enabled a fundamental change in soy from an Asian to an American cash crop. At the beginning of the twentieth century, soy rapidly became Northeast China's cash crop, owing to steadily increasing Western demand. However, the versatility of soy – and soy oil in particular – offered a highly successful response to the agricultural and industrial challenges that the United States faced during the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of the war, American farmers in the Midwest cultivated more soybeans than their Chinese counterparts.



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In March 2012, I presented an earlier version of this article at the International History Seminar at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I would like to thank the participants for their many helpful comments. I am also grateful to William Gervase Clarence-Smith and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism and suggestions. Many thanks also to the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, which funds my work, and in particular to Mark Stoneman for his extensive editorial help.



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1 Hayward, J. W., ‘Little Soybean’, Chemurgic Digest, 2, 11, 1944, p. 155

2 Mark R. Finlay, ‘Old efforts at new uses: a brief history of chemurgy and the American search for biobased materials’, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 7, 3–4, 2003, pp. 3346

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6 United States Department of Commerce and Bureau of the Census, Census of Agriculture 1944, Washington, DC, 1945, vol. 2, p. 431

7 Bois, Christine M. Du, Tan, Chee-Beng, and Mintz, Sidney, eds., The world of soy, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008

Bois, Christine M. Du, ‘Social context and diet: changing soy production and consumption in the United States’, pp. 208–233

8 Wolff, David, ‘Bean there: toward a soy-based history of northeast China’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 99, 1, 2000, pp. 242252

9 Ben-Canaan, Dan, Grüner, Frank, and Prodöhl, Ines, Entangled histories: the transcultural past of Northeast China, Berlin: Springer, 2013

10 Howell, David L., Capitalism from within: economy, society, and the state in a Japanese fishery, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995

11 Péhaut, Yves, ‘The invasion of foreign foods’, in Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, eds., Food: a culinary history from antiquity to the present, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 457470

Bowman, Joye L., ‘“Legitimate commerce” and peanut production in Portuguese Guinea, 1840s–1880s’, Journal of African History, 28, 1987, pp. 87106

12 Olukoju, Ayodeji, ‘The United Kingdom and the political economy of the global oils and fats business during the 1930s’, Journal of Global History, 4, 2009, pp. 105125

13 Jones, Geoffrey, Beauty imagined: a history of the global beauty industry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010

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15 Péhaut, ‘Invasion of foreign foods’.

16 Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, FAOSTAT production 2010, (consulted 31 April 2012).

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18 United States Department of Agriculture (henceforth USDA), Agricultural statistics 2011, Washington, DC, 2011

19 Fitzgerald, Deborah, Every farm a factory: the industrial ideal in American agriculture, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003

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20 Olmstead, Alan L. and Rhode, Paul W., Creating abundance: biological innovation and American agricultural development, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 263

21 Winders, Politics of food supply.

22 Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Folio, 253, August 2012 (special issue on Soya); Raising resistance, documentary directed by Bettina Borgfeld and David Bernet, 84 min., Germany and Switzerland, 2011. Even Olmstead and Rhode, Creating abundance, pp. 278–80, focus almost exclusively on soybean's value as an animal fodder.

23 Shaw, Soya bean, p. 9

24 Pomeranz, Kenneth, The great divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 226

25 Shaw, Soya bean, p. 9

26 Ibid., pp. 15–16; Economic history of Manchuria, compiled in commemoration of the decennial of the Bank of Chosen, Seoul, 1920, pp. 16–23.

27 Regarding the Qing attempt to make the region more Chinese, see Blaine Chiasson, ‘Late-Qing adaptive frontier administrative reform in Manchuria, 1900–1911’, in Ben-Canaan, Grüner, and Prodöhl, Entangled histories.

28 Chiasson, Blaine, Administering the colonizer: Manchuria's Russians under Chinese rule, 1918–1929, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010

Chou, Shun-Hsin, ‘Railway development and economic growth in Manchuria’, China Quarterly, 45, 1971, pp. 5784

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Paine, S. C. M., ‘The Chinese Eastern Railway from the First Sino-Japanese War until the Russo-Japanese War’, in Bruce A. Elleman and Stephen Kotkin, eds., Manchurian railways and the opening of China: an international history, Armonk, NY: M. W. Sharpe, 2010, pp. 1517

Steinberg, John W. and Wolff, David, eds., The Russo-Japanese War in global perspective: World War Zero, 2 vols., Leiden: Brill, 2005

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29 Glatfelter, ‘Russia’, pp. 140–141

30 During the Russo-Japanese War, Russian soldiers needed foodstuffs and forage from Chinese farmers; see Bank of Chosen, Economic history of Manchuria, pp. 37–8.

31 Report on progress in Manchuria, 1907–1928, Dairen: South Manchurian Railway Company, 1929, p. 116; see also Howell, Capitalism.

32 Hosie, Alexander, Manchuria: its people, resources and recent history, London: Methuen & Co., 1904, pp. 236262

33 Ibid., pp. 242–3, 260.

34 Bank of Chosen, Economic history of Manchuria, pp. 67–68

Myers, Ramon H. and Ulie, Thomas R., ‘Foreign influence and agricultural development in Northeast China: a case study of the Liaotung peninsula, 1960–1942’, Journal of Asian Studies, 31, 2, 1972, pp. 329350

35 Akagi, Hidemichi, ‘Japan's economic relations with China’, Pacific Affairs, 4, 6, 1931, pp. 488510

36 Iyenaga, Toyokichi, ‘Japan in South Manchuria’, Journal of Race Development, 2, 4, 1912, pp. 373398

37 Enatsu, Yoshiki, ‘The role of private companies in the expansion of Japan's interests in Manchuria in the 1920s: the case of the Toa Kangyo Company (Toa kangyo kabushiki kaisha)’, Chinese Business History, 15, 2, 2005, pp. 12

38 Kinnosuke, Adachi, Manchuria: a survey, New York: R. M. McBride & Company, 1925, pp. 159160

Shaw, Soya bean, pp. 20–21

39 Jürgen Osterhammel, Die Verwandlung der Welt: eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Munich: C. H. Beck, p. 1037

40 ‘Oil and cake manufacture: the soya oil bean’, The Economist, 4 December 1909, p. 1144.

41 Adachi, Manchuria, p. 160

42 Ibid., p. 259.

43 The history of Harbin has received much scholarly attention lately. See, most recently, Frank Grüner and Ines Prodöhl, eds., Ethnic ghettos and transcultural processes in a globalised city: new research on Harbin, Itinerario, 35, special issue 3, 2011.

44 Bank of Chosen, Economic history of Manchuria, pp. 226–227

45 See table in ibid., after p. 218.

46 See Chiasson, Administering the colonizer.

47 North Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway, Harbin: Economic Bureau, Chinese Eastern Railway Company, 1924, pp. 275–6.

48 This shift is indicated by figures for Harbin's total export freight, of which soybeans made up the lion's share. See ibid., pp. 284–5; see also Manchurian beans, Dairen: Agricultural Office, South Manchurian Railway Company, 1929, pp. 52–81.

49 Murakoshi, Nobuo and Trewartha, Glenn T., ‘Land utilization maps of Manchuria’, Geographical Review, 20, 3, 1930, pp. 490493

50 Other common names for sorghum were millet and kaoliang. The latter was a contemporary transliteration of the Chinese word for sorghum (gāoliáng). Millet, however, does not form a taxonomic group of its own; it is rather a collective term for certain cereals, among them sorghum.

51 Adachi, Manchuria, p. 159

52 CER, North Manchuria, p. 62

53 Prodöhl, Ines, ‘“A miracle bean”: how soy conquered the West, 1909–1950’, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, Washington DC, 46, Spring 2010, pp. 111–129

54 USDA, Statistics of fats, oils, and oleaginous raw materials, USDA Statistical Bulletin, 24, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1928, p. 13.

55 Fitzner, Rudolf, Die Weltwirtschaft der Fettstoffe, Berlin: Heyman, 1919

56 Jones, Beauty imagined, pp. 97–150

Wilcox, Farmer, p. 194

Berghoff, Hartmut and Kühne, Thomas, eds., Globalizing beauty: consumerism and body aesthetics in the twentieth century, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

57 US Department of Commerce and Labor, Soya bean.

58 Ibid.

59 USDA, Use soy-bean flour to save wheat, meat, and fat, Circular 113, Washington, DC, 1918, p. 4.

60 Fürstenberg, Maurice, Die Einführung der Soja: eine Umwälzung der Volksernährung, Berlin: Verlagsbuchhandlung Paul Parey, 1916, p. 10

61 Drews, Joachim, Die ‘Nazi-Bohne’: Anbau, Verwendung und Auswirkung der Sojabohne im Deutschen Reich und Südosteuropa, 1933–1945, Münster: Lit Verlag, 2004, pp. 3440

62 SMR, Report on progress in Manchuria, p. 110

63 International Institute of Agriculture, International Yearbook of Agricultural Statistics, 1920/21–1940/41. Other European countries with notable import levels were France, Norway, and Sweden. Russia was not included in the statistics because it received its soybeans directly from the CER.

64 Stietz, Erich, Die Soja in der Weltwirtschaft: ein Beitrag zur Ernährungs- und Rohstoffwirtschaft der Erde, Bethel bei Bielefeld: Anstalt Bethel, 1931, p. 29

65 Wendel, Armin, ‘Lecithin: the first 150 years’, International News on Fats, Oils, and Related Materials, 11, 2000, pp. 885892

66 Die deutsche Oelmühlen-Industrie: Festschrift zum 25jährigen Bestehen des Verbandes der Deutschen Oelmühlen zur Wahrung ihrer gemeinsamen Interessen, Berlin: Verband der deutschen Oelmühlen, 1925, p. 21.

67 See, for instance, Hansa-Mühle GmbH Hamburg, Die Soyabohne (n.p., n.d.).

68 Stietz, Soja, p. 37

69 Ibid., p. 39.

70 Hansa-Mühle, Soyabohne.

71 Hamburg, Hansa-Mühle GmbH, Die rationalisierte Ölsaatverarbeitung als Wirtschaftsfaktor für Deutschland und unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Sojabohne, Hamburg: Broscheck, 1927, p. 2122

72 Hille, Werner, ‘Der Weltmarkt der Ölfrüchte und Ölsaaten in seiner Bedeutung für die Rohstoffversorgung der deutschen Ölmühlen-Industrie’, PhD thesis, University of Innsbruck, 1939, p. 35

73 Bacon, Lois B., Schloemer, Friedrich C., and Taylor, Henry C., World trade in agricultural products: its growth, its crisis, and the new trade policies, Rome: International Institute of Agriculture, 1940, pp. 214327

74 Stewart, John R., ‘Manchurian import boom subsiding’, Far Eastern Survey, 5, 11, 1936, p. 114

75 Hall, Russell E., ‘Outposts of empire in the southern Pacific’, Far Eastern Survey, 7, 4, 1938, pp. 3543

76 Verordnungen 13 April 1933 and 23 September 1933, Reichsgesetzblatt I, pp. 206, 662.

77 Corni, Gustavo, Hitler and the peasants: agrarian policy and the Third Reich 1930–1939, New York: Berg, 1990

78 Hille, ‘Weltmarkt der Ölfrüchte’, p. 60

79 ‘Die deutsch-mandschurische Wirtschafts-Vereinbarung’, Ostasiatische Rundschau, 17, 11, 1 June 1936, p. 281.

80 Richter, Otto, ‘Umschau: der chinesisch–japanische Konflikt’, Ostasiatische Rundschau, 19, 18, 16 September 1938, pp. 421–422

Rosinger, Lawrence K., ‘Germany's far eastern policy under Hitler’, Pacific Affairs, 11, 4, 1938, pp. 421432

81 Winders, Politics of food supply, pp. 31–50

82 Morse, William J. and Hendrick, Herbert B., Illustrated lecture on soy beans, USDA Syllabus, 35, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1919

Piper, Charles V. and Morse, William J., The soy bean, with special reference to its utilization for oil, cake, and other products, USDA Bulletin, 439, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1916

Piper, Charles V. and Morse, William J., The soybean, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1923, pp. 129143

83 Smil, Vaclav, Enriching the earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the transformation of world food production, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001

84 Memorandum regarding agricultural explorations in north-eastern China, Korea, Formosa, and the Dutch East Indies, 16 November 1928, in USDA National Agricultural Library, Special Collections, Dorsett–Morse oriental agricultural exploration expedition collection, Dorsett–Morse expedition journal, 1, 1929.

85 Finlay, ‘Old efforts’.

86 Finlay, Mark R., ‘The industrial utilization of farm products and by-products: the USDA Regional Research Laboratories’, Agricultural History, 64, 2, 1990, p. 4152

Hilbert, G. E., ‘Soybean studies at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory’, Chemurgic Digest, 7, February 1948, pp. 11–14

87 Benson Ford Research Center, (consulted July 2012); Regarding Ford's dedication to chemurgy, see William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, Henry Ford and his researchers: history of their work with soybeans, soyfoods and chemurgy, 1928–2011, Extensively annotated bibliography and sourcebook, (consulted 28 March 2012).

88 USDA, Soybeans, cowpeas, and velvetbeans, by states, 1924–1953, USDA Statistical Bulletin, 211, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1957

89 Ibid., p. 13.

90 USDA Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Fats and oils situation, May 1940

Walsh, Robert M., ‘Far Eastern fats and oils’, Far Eastern Survey, 11, 19, 1942, pp. 201202

91 Finlay, Mark R., Growing American rubber: strategic plants and the politics of national security, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009

William G. Clarence-Smith, ‘The battle for rubber in the Second World War: cooperation and resistance’, Commodities of Empire, working paper 14, 2009

92 Wilcox, Farmer, p. 184

Brandt, Karl, ‘Production and consumption of fats and oils’, in John D. Black, ed., Nutrition and food supply: the war and after, Philadelphia, PA, 1943, p. 214

93 Koistinen, Paul A. C., Arsenal of World War II: the political economy of American warfare, 1940–1945, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004

94 Regarding fats and oils, see in particular Orders M 59 (palm oil), M 60 (coconut oil, babassu oil, palm kernel oil, and other oils high in lauric acid), and M 71 (fats and oils). These orders were included in the Conservation index and substitution guide: a cross-reference of end products with ‘L Limitation’ and ‘M Conservation’ orders, showing substitution possibilities, published by the Conservation Division, War Production Board, Washington, DC, January 1943, section 108 (fats and oils). M 59 and M 60 were not time-limited. For the period of the order's validity and a more general overview of most orders, see Priorities in force: War Production Board: an alphabetical listing of all priorities orders in the M, P, E, and L series, together with miscellaneous orders and regulations which have been issued under the priorities power through March 31, 1942, prepared and issued by the US Office for Emergency Management, 1942.

95 Wilson, Politics of food supply, pp. 69–70

96 Wilcox, Farmer, p. 195

97 Lard made up for soybean oil in the production of soap in and after 1943; see ibid., p. 194–5.

98 The story of soybeans, soybean oil, soybean meal: their uses and products, Chicago, IL: Chicago Board of Trade, 1951, pp. 23–4.

99 Wilcox, Farmer, pp. 182–183

100 Du Bois, ‘Social context’.

101 Horvarth, Arthemy A., The soybean industry, New York: The Chemical Publishing Company, 1938

Woodruff, Sybil and Klaas, Helen, A study of soybean varieties with reference to their use as food, USDA Agricultural Experiment Station Urbana, IL, Bulletin 443, 1938

Whiteman, Elizabeth Fuller and Keyt, Ellen Kingsley, Soybeans for the table, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1938

Drown, Marion Julia, Soybeans and soybean products as food, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1943

Lloyd, John William and Burlison, W. L., Eighteen varieties of edible soybeans, USDA Agricultural Experiment Station Urbana, IL, Bulletin 453, 1939

102 Dies, Edward J., Soybeans: gold from the soil, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1943, pp. 4853

Chicago Board of Trade, Story of soybeans, p. 27

103 The miracle of soy, Decatur, IL: A. E. Staley Manufacturing company, 1944.

104 Taylor, Demetria M., The soy cook book, New York: Greenberg, 1944

105 Piper and Morse, The soybean, 1923, pp. 129–143

Turkish, Norman A., ‘Commodities: high finance in soybeans’, Financial Analysts Journal, 17, 2, 1961, pp. 9192

106 Dies, Soybeans, p. 93

Munn, Alvin A., ‘Production and utilization of the soybean in the United States’, Economic Geography, 26, 3, 1950, pp. 223234

Staley Manufacturing company, Miracle of soy, p. 9

107 Johnson, L. A., Myers, D. J., and Burden, D. J., ‘Soy protein's history, prospects in food and feed’, International News on Fats, Oils, and Related Materials, 3, 4, 1992, pp. 429444

108 Turkish, ‘Commodities’, p. 95

* In March 2012, I presented an earlier version of this article at the International History Seminar at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I would like to thank the participants for their many helpful comments. I am also grateful to William Gervase Clarence-Smith and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism and suggestions. Many thanks also to the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, which funds my work, and in particular to Mark Stoneman for his extensive editorial help.

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