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Why Soybeans Sit On The Bench While Corn Takes The Field

Pity the poor, almighty, soybean. It's the nation's second blockbuster crop, corn's only serious rival, but nobody throws it a party.

Think about it. Nebraska has its Cornhuskers, but I've yet to hear of a big-time football team called the "Soy Threshers." There's a Cotton Bowl, and an Orange Bowl, but no Soybean Bowl. In fact, do you even know what a soybean plant looks like? Didn't think so. (Here. Educate yourself.)

Ines Prodöhl, a cultural and economic researcher at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., says it has no cultural resonance because it was for many years simply an industrial ingredient.

To demonstrate how little love there is for soy, she went to the Library of Congress's American Memory site, an amazing online repository of cultural artifacts, and searched for "soybean" or "soy." She came up with fewer than 20 documents. If you type in "corn," meanwhile, you get more than 4,000 entries. Try "cotton," and you hit the search tool's limit of 5,000. Those crops are icons of Americana. Soybeans, Prodöhl says, are "culturally invisible" in the United States.

Invisible, that is, unless you happen to be driving through the American Midwest or parts of Brazil and Argentina, where soybeans cover vast sections of prime farmland. For good reason, too. These beans are a kind of biological superhero, delivering valuable protein that you — or, more accurately, your chicken or livestock — won't get from grains like corn or wheat. Also, being legumes, soybeans get much of the nitrogen they need from the air, rather than expensive and environmentally damaging fertilizer.

The Chinese (as well as Koreans and Japanese) have been making food out of soybeans for thousands of years, but Americans only discovered their virtues a century ago.

Having conquered the United States and then South America - you can see a moving graph of how it happened here - the soybean is now expanding its foothold in Africa. Last month, I was in Mozambique, and was astonished to encounter small farmers in remote villages growing soybeans. It turned out they'd been encouraged to grow this crop as part of a USAID-sponsored development project.

The venture is paying off for these villagers. There's a growing chicken industry in Mozambique that's desperate for more protein-rich feed, and the small farmers are getting great prices for their soybeans.

Still, even in Mozambique, corn is king. Political posters and billboards for FRELIMO, the country's ruling political party, feature ears of corn. That remains the icon of prosperity.

So why do soybeans get so little respect? is it just because they grow on a modest little bush, rather than corn's proud and attractive stalk? Or because they only arrived on the global scene during the past century?

Ines Prodöhl has another theory. Soybeans, she says, had the bad luck to arrive in North America solely as a source of cheap vegetable oil. In the early part of the 20th century, in fact, American soybean crushers had difficulty finding a market for the protein-rich soy meal that remained after the oil was extracted. It took them years to persuade the livestock industry to feed it to their animals.

As a result, soybeans remained invisible and largely unappreciated, an anonymous source of oil — some of which went into soap and industrial lubrication — and animal feed. That process "disconnected soy from society," says Prodöhl.

Since then, soybean promoters have occasionally attempted to bring this humble oilseed out from behind the industrial curtain and promote it in its own right. In recent years, some of those efforts have succeeded: Consider the popular bags of frozen edamame popping up at grocery stores and bright cartons of soy milk, claiming to make cow's milk jealous.

But many earlier efforts to showcase soy were inspired by hard times and shortages. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, for instance, the U.S. government promoted soy in Europe as a nutrient-rich antidote for widespread hunger.

As Prodöhl points out, this only cemented the soybean's utilitarian image: A useful plant, to be sure. But not one that fills us with fond memories.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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