The Wonder Bean
The soybean, Illinois’s other corn
See Illinois (unpublished)
A selection from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. Looking back, it seems clear that farmers in Illinois were heading for a crisis caused by the internal combustion engine. Land they once farmed to feed their draft animals had to be planted in some money-making crop. Corn was the obvious choice, but but constantly cropping corn wore out their soil and in any event there was only so much corn even a hungry world can eat. The soybean saved the soil and saved the farms too, as I try to explain below.
Seventy-five years ago the soybean was an exotic specialty crop in Illinois, but beans have since become one of the state’s staples. Illinois routinely produces about one sixth of the total U.S. soybean crop—less than its share of top-rated daytime TV talk shows hosts or cellar-dwelling NBA teams, but in recent years that's been enough to make it the nation’s No. 2 producer. The industry amounts to considerably more than a hill of beans. The 1990s saw record numbers of Illinois acres planted in beans (some ten million in a typical year) and record-high yields too. Cash receipts in a good year measure in the billions.
For all that, the soybean remains a mystery to most town-dwelling Illinoisans. A bright farm boy could pay his ag school tuition by betting city slickers how many soybean plants occupy a typical one-acre field. (Answer: 100,000 to 150,000.) In fact, most Illinoisans recognize the plant in the fields only by a process of elimination—if it isn’t corn, what else could it be but soybeans?
Nor is the public very clear on what beans are used for. Just as many Americans believes that the corn in the field is the sweet corn they get from a can, so do many assume that soybeans feed the nation’s appetite for soy milk. In fact, the bean is nearly ubiquitous in the national diet, if invisible, because soybeans are a food that goes into other foods. The bean packs more protein per ounce than meat so animal feed is routinely supplemented with soy protein, with the result that most beans (in the form of soybean meal) are eaten by livestock that are eaten by people.
Roughly a third of the annual production of edible soybean oil is used for commercial baking and frying, the rest in home cooking oils and in margarine, mayonnaise, salad dressings, and other prepared foods. And even four-legged Americans eat soy; much of the popular commercial dog foods is beans.
Soybeans in one form or another also are used in the manufacture of plastics, paints, adhesives, fuel, biodegradable hydraulic fluid and inks, explosives, even leather softeners and children’s crayons. The Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Co., or ADM, is marketing soybean-derived “neutraceuticals” or nutrients that, because of their health benefits, function therapeutically much as do drugs. The firm has built a new vitamin C plant in Decatur, and expanded its production of isoflavones and natural-source vitamin E.
All the more surprising, therefore, that as recently as the 1920s the soybean, as a commercial crop, did not exist in Illinois. The plant has a long pedigree in Asia and is well-suited to central Illinois; Decatur lies at about same latitude as Dairen, Manchuria, center of the soybean belt in the Old World. The plant was introduced to Illinois as long ago as 1851. However, those early varieties were more vine than bush, which made their seeds hard to harvest. Worse, the oil squeezed from those seeds tended to go rancid.
Intense breeding led to upright, short-limbed varieties that obediently stand up to being raked clean by a harvest combine and new processing techniques rendered more of the bean usable. This transformation of a plant into a crop owed much to public research. The soybean industry is another of agriculture’s spin-off of science into commerce of the sort that the dot.com crowd thinks they invented. Universities and the USDA have been developing new soybean varieties since the early 1900s. (Private seed companies have only been tweaking seeds since 1970, because before that time there was no real profit in the effort.)
Much of the early university research on soybean was done in Illinois, so the crop is firmly rooted in agriculture of the state in every way. The First Annual Corn Belt Soybean Day was held here in 1920. When Congress in 1935 wanted to set up a Regional Soybean Industrial Products Lab to learn things about the chemistry of the soybean that might suggest new uses for it, they put it at the University of Illinois. A major U.S. Department of Agriculture research lab in Peoria eventually took it over, but new soybean research projects sprouted from that old Illinois rootstock in the 1980s and ‘90s.
In 1993 the National Soybean Research Laboratory (NSRL) was opened at the U of I as a major research facility within what is now called the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. Funded by fed and state and private funds, it is home to more than 60 faculty, graduate students, and administrative staff from several university departments, the Illinois Natural History Survey, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The lab houses the International Soybean Program, or INTSOY, and the U.S. Soybean Germ Plasm Collection. The latter is to agronomy what the Louvre is to painting, and includes some nine thousand varieties. Its research agenda is, in words of the lab, “goal-oriented and market-driven,“ which is how people pronounce “practical" these days.
The Barnum of soybeans
Developing a new crop plant is not nearly as hard as getting farmers to grow it. True, the plant had a lot to recommend it to the most hidebound Illinois farmer. The shift to oil-powered tractors left farmers with a lot of land that had been used to grow hay and oats for their horses. The corn borer doesn’t like soybeans, which makes soybeans a good choice as a second crop for farmers rotating fields with corn to disrupt that pesky insect’s life cycle. And because the plant “fixes” nitrogen from the air, growing it does not require the expensive nitrogenous fertilizers that corn does.
But farmers in the 1920s had invested a lot of equipment and know-how in raising the old crops, and were no more eager to become bean farmers than laid-off auto workers are to become accountants. True, their great-grandparents had done it once before—corn is a Meso-American import introduced to the pioneer Euro-American farmers by the Indians—but that was generations ago.
The soybean needed a Johnny Appleseed and it got one in the person of August Eugene Staley, founder and CEO of the firm of that name headquartered in Decatur. In 1922 Staley, eager to replace imported soybean products from China with his own firm’s products, decided he would begin processing soybeans in his Decatur plant. Before Staley could crush beans in quantity local farmers had to grow them. Fortunately (like many businessmen of the day) Staley had a little Barnum in him. He sponsored with the U of I a special educational train in 1927 ("The Soil and Soybean Special") as part of a massive re-education campaign to get the soybean accepted as a cash crop. Thanks to such efforts the farmers of Illinois undertook a massive shift in planting. Fifty years ago, as many as half the fields that today sport beans would have had oats or hay growing on them. As agricultural revolutions go, the beaning of Illinois was rapid and comprehensive.
Illinois's Staley relied on farmers to grow their beans but Illinois farmers relied on their Staleys to make them useful. Producing protein-rich meal and edible oil from raw grains requires a bit of industrial alchemy, much of its discovered or perfected by Illinois food processors. The raw soybean is dried, crushed into flakes, and then "washed" with hexane, an organic solvent, to remove the oil. After that comes cooking. One of the ways in which nature disobliged the food industry was by including in cultivated soybean varieties substances known as trypsin inhibitors. These interfere with the ability of the enzyme trypsin (found in the digestive tracts of monogastric animals such as chickens) to digest protein. Happily, trypsin inhibitors are destroyed by heat, so soybeans that have been cooked can be fed to most classes of livestock. Heating the meal also drives off hexane left from the oil removal process.
The oil and meal that results go into cooking oils and animal feeds. In other forms the bean is found in paper coatings and wood veneers, printing ink, plastics, textile fibers, paper coatings, and oleochemicals. As a raw material, the wonder bean is as fecund as petroleum.
The next soybean
And the next revolution? Illinois grain farmers today are growing different crops using different methods and selling them to different markets than they did before World War II. Chances are good that 50 years from now crops, methods, and markets will have changed again. For example:
New methods Farmer’s openness to experimentation that might boost yields or cut costs has become part of the culture. Among other miracles that have reached the field test stage at the U of I is “mechatronic” systems that can guide driverless tractors across fields using global positioning satellites. Already in wide use is yield mapping in which farmers use GPS to correlates data from soil tests and harvests to calculate the minimum efficient fertilizer dose for any part of any field, indeed any row of a field.
New market arrangements The economic arrangements by which the Grand Prairie’s grain is produced and marketed are changing. Farmers can now use the World Wide Web to market their own grain rather than use the traditional intermediaries such as the local grain elevator operator. One of the innovations Chicago brought to the grain trade in the 1850s was the grading of incoming grain by quality, so that grain from many farmers could be combined for easier bulk handling. After a century and a half, farmers still are paid on the delivered weight of grain of a given grade, the criteria for which remain fairly crude—moisture content or the presence of broken kernels or dirt. Technology is being tested that should allow evaluation of the protein and oil content as well as quantity of every truckload of soybeans at the point of sale. If perfected, such magic means that farmers may get paid based on their crops’ processed value—a truer measure of its value that should be an incentive to grow better beans.
New products One solution to dwindling commodity prices is to conjure up new products that might make old crops sellable in new markets. One way to spur demand for soybeans would be to increase the soybeans directly consumed by humans. So far soy has penetrated food markets in minor forms such as health foods or TVP (texturized vegetable protein), the latter familiar as “bacon bits.” But three food researchers at Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co. in 1998 founded a startup called SoyNut Butter Co. that hopes to become the Microsoft of family sandwich spreads by marketing their new soy-based “peanut” butter aimed at children and people with allergies to peanuts. A U of I plant breeder has crossbred garden-variety soybeans to come up a half dozen new types that can be eaten directly as snacks. The prospect of breaking out of the pig feed and health food niche into the nutritional mainstream is enticing enough that it has attracted such corporate food processors as Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc., which recently acquired a national maker of soy burgers.
Selling more crops is one way to boost profits; so is selling more of a crop. The search for uses for waste products from current food processing technologies is the high-tech version of the old thrift that saw the farmer feed his slop to the pigs. Leftover skins and hulls of processed corn kernels, now used as animal food, contains some oils, proteins and other substances. In 2000 the giant food processing firm ADM, the National Corn Growers Association, and several other business partners announced plans to spend $2.5 million over two years to cook up a commercial process to convert this corn fiber into more valuable products such as ethanol, antifreeze, vegetable oil, or vitamins.
New varieties of old crops By the end of the 1990s conventional hybridization techniques had come to be seen as cumbersome, even quaint. The trend in Illinois as elsewhere, is toward the direct manipulation of the plant’s genetic coding to produce commercially desirable traits. New varieties of soybean such as the “Kunitz” can be fed raw to “finishing” pigs without having to be cooked or heated first. The oil in raw beans (which now is usually extracted by processors and used for other things) adds energy punch as well as protein to the animals’ diet; also, raw beans do not add as much dust to the air as feed pellets, which do to the confined hog barn what coal dust used to do to mines.
Other programmable traits may include resistance to herbicides, which allows the farmers to use more weed killer this year without risk of the residues harming next year’s crops. Some varieties have been introduced that were designed to produce their own insecticide, such as the popular “Bt” corn, which has genes from a soil bacterium that produces a toxin fatal to the corn borer insect.
Illinois’s farmers adopted genetically-modified organism or GMO seeds even faster than their fathers adopted hybrids in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s been estimated that in late 1999, barely four years since introduction, one third of the corn and half the beans grown in Illinois sprouted from GMO seeds. Controversies about the possible human health effects or ecological effects of GMO plants have slowed adoption. For example, Japan has an official "zero tolerance" for the import of unapproved agricultural products, and the public in EEC nations is especially anxious about health risks from “Frankenfood.” Accommodating such concerns may lead to a two-tiered system of grain elevators and shipping and storage facilities, one to handle genetically engineered corn and another non-GMO corn, with buyers paying a premium for products from those without.
New non-food uses A future beckons in which the farmer may function as a supplier of industrial raw materials. (In fact this is already largely true, if one accepts that the livestock that feed on Illinois grains are a factory product.) Food is becoming outmoded as a farm crop. Plants are potential raw materials for a wide variety of nonfood items as well. The biggest non-food use of Illinois corn is as a source of ethanol, a form of alcohol but Illinois crops can also be used in the manufacture of lubricants, industrial chemicals, waxes and rubber, even (through genetic modification) drugs. Corn starch, for example, can be used to encapsulate microbial pesticides to protect them against sunlight and rain, or manufacture biodegradable plastics.
Corn is not the only potential industrial feedstock that might be grown on the Grand Prairie. Industrial hemp is one. Disease-free, unappetizing to insects, and able to deliver two crops a year, the plant used to be grown widely in the region. (Future governor Richard Oglesby made and sold hemp ropes from a cart in Decatur as a youth.) These days hemp fiber can be processed into everything from clothing to car bodies. Another miracle crop is cuphea, a Central American shrub that yields seed oils containing fatty acids used to make solvents, detergents, and emulsifiers. The plant (hybrids of which were successfully grown in central Illinois test fields in 1999) has potential for Midwest farmers looking for a third crop to rotate with corn and beans.
Advocates of new crops are undertaking re-education campaigns, just as they did in the 1920s, when the soybean was as rare in an Illinois field as a bidet in an outhouse. The University of Illinois Ag Extension Service started a “Seeds-for-Kids” program which gave cooperating farm youth five new crops to plant in small plots, the aim being to introduce the next generation of farmers to alternative crops.
That future is of course unknowable, as the future that included satellite-guided harvests and made-to-order corn plants was unknowable to the men and women who first poked the Illinois sod with hoes. For decades, plant scientists have been looking for the next soybean, anticipating a future in which farm fields in Illinois will be used not to grow food but to produce industrial raw materials. Maybe the next soybean will be trees for building lumber (for more about that, see The Birth of the Plyscraper) and maybe climate change will open up new possibilities for the cultivation of agave for tequila-makers. Someone somewhere in Illinois is probably working on it. ●
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