I. The Soybean and Its Family
Today everyone, whether he wishes it or not, whether living in an advanced or backward country, is confronted by the soybean, although not visibly (apart from the modish foods like tofu, soy milk, meat and sausage substitutes and sauces). We may know that oil-cake from soy is needed for intensive animal breeding, or that soy-lecithin has found wide use. But to realize to what a degree the world economy – the welfare of industrial nations as well as the survival of less well-to-do countries – has become dependent on this plant, we have to look at this more closely.
The soybean belongs to the family of the legumes, together with peas, beans, clover, peanuts. This family has an ability highly valued by the farmer, of binding the nitrogen in the atmosphere in their root nodules (with the help of bacteria). In China the soybean was planted for centuries in the year preceding the crop-rotation proper. While nitrogen is a support to the plants that follow, the plant itself serves as animal fodder or green manure and its seeds as food for humans. In the west the nitrogen function was largely taken over by the clovers, etc. These plants foster milk-production but can occasionally cost the life of a cow from bloat.
That legumes can fix nitrogen in the soil, while other plants are dependent on it, places them in a category by themselves, opposed to the rest of the plant world. Their mode of growth differs markedly from other plants. The latter hold up their blossoms and seeds to the sun and cosmos the best they can. Growth then stops and the plant dies after seeding.
The legumes, however, blossoming and fruiting in the leaf region, go on producing leaf and blossom alternatively without a pause. Their blossoms form a kind of helmet containing hollow spaces – a gesture of withholding, reminiscent of the way animal organs form. Their germination is also characteristic. Instead of the soy sending a vertical shoot to seek the free air, a bean neck emerges, both ends of which stay in the soil – both the root and cotyledon poles. The plant seems reluctant to leave the earth. Many features in its growth remind us of descriptions of the “animal-plants” on the “Old Moon,” of which Rudolf Steiner speaks in the Outline of Occult Science.
The short period of time within which germination of the soybean must take place (within four months) is in striking contrast to the cereal plants. They concentrate their fruiting on elevated stems, leaving their leaves behind them to shrivel and die. The soybean’s realm is the watery sphere of the undines, while the grains ripen among the fiery salamanders. With regard to the usual threefold nature of plants – earth-emprisoned roots, rhythmically growing and breathing leaves, an independent realm of color and scent in the blossom – the legumes seem only two-fold due to an undifferentiated region of leaf and blossom. Rudolf Steiner points out in the Agricultural Course how the legumes embody a gesture of “taking” (characteristic of the animal) while all other plants are “giving.”
The plant world builds itself in the main by virtue of the element carbon, while animal life bases on the element calcium. This is the carrier of the life of desire; from this derive inwardness and autonomy. Desires belong to the soul and require stimulus from outside. The calcium in the mineral world has need of nitrogen to maintain its vitality and rouse its “appetites.” Thus the legumes are by their nature the allies of calcium and under its domination.
The family of legumes includes many quite dangerous poisonous plants, others not undangerous. Even the edible pulses must be prepared and eaten with care. More refined cultures have made less and less use of these foods. In any case, they are consumed mainly in the wintertime, when humans are more independent of the cosmos and more concerned with themselves. What dangers follow, if this most typical representative of the legume family, the soybean, becomes the worldwide basis for food production?
What the Soybean Can Do
It is enlightening to thumb through a brochure that recommends the planting of soybeans —at present highly subsidized by the European Union—and read the directions given to farmers. They must first ensure the presence of soil bacteria, if these originally Chinese plants are to reproduce their valuable root nodules in western soils. The soy plant can’t tolerate weeds as neighbors. These must be removed at least three times a year with suitable weed-killers (when plowing, in early spring and immediately after planting). Under “competition” it sickens. This anti-social bent is reflected on the economic level, as we shall see. To avoid the danger of mould in damp weather, the harvest should by-pass the farmer’s barn and go directly to the processing plant. There it can be dried and stored under optimum conditions.
The high protein content of this plant is its chief attraction as a food. Protein is the “animal” substance produced around the seed, where astral forces have been most active. Much intelligence has been required to make this plant consumable. First an industrial oil is pressed out, from which margarine is made. It wasn’t easy to find a use for the residual “oil-cake,” for although animals eat it with relish, it has a growth-inhibiting effect. Only when the substances responsible for this had been isolated and removed could it become the basis for the mass-breeding of animals. Pigs, chickens and cattle could be “produced” quicker with this than with traditional forms of fodder.
The plant’s relation to water is the key. Water, allied to moon forces and calcium, fosters growth, while form, structure, and specific qualities stem from warmth and sunlight. Volume can be gained, but at the expense of a “watering down” of quality. It is interesting that in its natural form soy contains a counteracting and now “unwelcome” growth-inhibiting factor. Removing it from the fodder permits growth-forces to work unchecked; this is demonstrated by the cartilage-like bones of the young animals.
On the other hand, the prosperity of the industrialized world – that spends only a fraction of its income for foodstuffs – is dependent on such processes. The mass breeding of animals nourished on soy oil-cake, in combination with crops produced intensively using artificial fertilizers, has held food prices unnaturally low, at the same time encouraging development of giant food industries. Thus our consumer society, with its squandering of resources and its ever-increasing sense of dissatisfaction, owes its existence in growing measure to the previously unimagined properties of the soybean.
It is able to serve our sense of well-being in many other ways. It is the chief and cheapest source of lecithin, which ensures the smoothness of chocolate and hinders the crystallization of sugars. Fatty substances are made “light.” For example, with lecithin, margarine can be made to contain 20 percent water. Soy-meal mixed with wheat flour prevents shrinkage in baking. Increased water content makes baked goods cheaper and crispier when stored. Added to meat products, it prevents shrinkage during cooking. soy has won uses in medicine, cosmetics, paints and milk products, due to its ability to take up substances and hold them fast, to “subserve” instead of asserting its own personality. Its talent consists in creating illusions, useful for making ice creams, sauces, fast-foods, cat foods and dog foods. It can imitate the taste, appearance and texture of almost any food we might find on our plates.
The talent of this plant, aided by modern industry, in supplanting all other foodstuffs is not to be ignored. The only question is, to what degree has it become a hindrance to the emergence and development of human soul forces? What is its influence going to be in future on the evolution of the earth?
II: The History of the Soybean in the 20th Century
Here we are to encounter the same dynamic everywhere, as if this plant had opportunistic genius in expanding—even becoming a factor in wars. It has been able to muster a large share of the world’s intelligence and capacity, in finding and taking advantage of all its possibilities. Behind its unassuming task of providing cheap but rich feed for animals and in certain regions for whole human populations, it has managed to squeeze in “by the back door.” But once it emerges from the shadows, its behavior becomes pugnacious. We note the phrases: “capturing the market,” “offensives,” “strategic alliances,” “political pressure,” “battles,” etc. The chart below showing the trade in soy for the year 1980 is strongly reminiscent of a plan for strategic encirclement.
The potato and the later tomato, both from the deadly nightshade family, made their world conquest in quite a different way. Their spread was due to their practicality in providing foods with little trouble and space involved. Their expansion was peaceful, if irresistible, and the outcome has been a total change in eating habits, (similar to that worked by the soybean) including a profound influence on human nature. Rudolf Steiner showed their contribution to the spread of materialis without this effect coming to our notice. We can ask whether, in a certain sense, these plants have not paved the way for the soybean.
The economic leadership of America, established to a supreme degree in the course of this century, is based not solely on external power, but also on the fact that all nations on earth have come to depend on America in a variety of ways. Where this becomes a dependency for foodstuffs—and in this America seeks with every possible means to make such dependency absolute—the soybean comes into a position of influencing people’s physical constitution, the basis of individual being. What other plant apart from the soybean could have allowed a world dominion to arise, drawing its power from the denial to populations, through diet, of the physical basis for clear thinking and independent, conscious action?
The pressure exerted today by America in world politics was preceded by a patient, purposeful partnership of interest over decades. When it became clear that unsuspected possibilities lay in soy used as green fodder and as nitrogen enricher of the soil, the ASA (American Soybean Association) was founded. This unites industrialists, soybean producers and scientists. Each year the extent of soybean planting is set by common consent in light of demand and the extent of government subsidies. In this way prices could be held at a constant low level, permitting the oil mills to carry on a price-war that gradually drove all competing products from the field. The scientists’ task was to convert the oil-cake to a product that would satisfy the demands of animal breeders, and to explore all possible further uses of this plant. Thus in America both a highly mechanized intensive mode of farming and the mass breeding of animals could be worked out and perfected.
Many factors have played into the hands of the soybean. In the beginning (the 1920s) when there was an overproduction of wheat, corn, and cotton in America, the government gave financial support for planting soybeans on fields otherwise unneeded. The slow rise in the American standard of living, with its preference for white meat and vegetable fats, increased the demand both for margarine and for oil-cake for large scale breeding. By its cheapness, margarine could take its place beside butter in the ordinary American diet. The serious competition from cotton-seed oil-cake was removed as by magic when the government reduced cotton planting while continuing soybean support. During the Second World War soy oil could substitute for oils that could no longer be imported. Even the socialist revolution in China gave a boost to the American soybean. Confiscation and reapportionment of land removed the possibility of planned production, and soon China was importing soybeans from America.
Thus America became the only country exporting soybeans. True, in the 1970s the U.S. saw Brazil and later Argentina become real competitors, but economically this worked out in a positive way. In the meantime, every country in the world was opened up to the soybean. The support offered countries in the throes of emergencies became a means of disposing of US overproduction. Political ties to such countries strengthened as the flow of goods—but particularly of soy oil—changed the dietary habits of populations. This ensured a steady market and economic dependence.
As regards the soybean, the world falls into two parts—one continent producing the plant and offering it everywhere in forms adapted to economic circumstances, and all other continents, which have become totally dependent on the first for this base support for their living standards. In 1973 the world suddenly woke up to this sour pill. A drought year in Africa destroyed the peanut harvest; simultaneously came an unpredicted demand from Russia. Since the area reserved for soybean production proved much too small, the US was driven to choose either to prohibit all exports or experience a shortage at home. The embargo on soy that ensued raised a panic in the importing countries. Provisions for mass animal breeders were imperiled, with all foreseeable economic consequences. Fortunately, the crisis proved not so severe as anticipated. The export bans were relaxed, while Brazil emerged as a new supplier. Yet an enormous rise in price had resulted, which dropped after the crisis, yet still remained 1½ to 2 times higher.
For 20 years now, European countries have tried to escape from this dependency. They plant soy themselves where climate permits (Italy producing 90 percent of European production), or breed new varieties which thrive in less favorable climatic conditions. Use of indigenous plants or those imported from former colonies to produce oil-cake is encouraged, but the result is far from conclusive. Despite use of oil-cake from rapeseed, sunflower, cotton and peanuts, the demand for soy oil-cake has not declined in the European Union, now representing around 70 percent of total needs. Efforts at independence prove futile as the demand rises.
And America is convinced it must consolidate this situation so that it can never change, whatever the circumstances. Surveying the plight of various countries due to the soybean, we might be tempted to agree with America that everything should remain as it is. There seems indeed no rational way to change matters. Only too easily can we visualize what immense suffering would follow any sudden collapse of the present system.
Japan offers a typical case of how the prosperity of industrialized countries can depend totally on the soybean. Japan accepted American arguments that all its efforts should go into the industrial side, into construction of oil mills. They import the beans, grown but sparsely at home, from America. Thus with mass animal breeding techniques they ensure cheap meat prices for their population. Countries like Tunisia, major producers of olive oil that has up to now been supplied cheaply for local use, are now importing American soy oil, mixing it with olive oil for local consumption, and thus have more pure oil for export to richer countries. Everywhere we see the temptation to gain prosperity by means of the soybean, meanwhile dismantling the possibility of achieving self-sufficiency.
Brazil is a case in point. Its politics of economic expansion via the soybean has robbed the internal market of access to local production. Government subsidies favor the big landowners; the expensive mechanization needed for farming has driven the small farmers, who formerly supplied the cities with food, into the city slums. The result: in order to feed the population, the profit from export of soy has to be invested in imports of wheat, beans, etc., chiefly from America. In 1973 Brazil decided to set up oil mills in order to export finished products. These installations have proven far too large for what is grown at home, thus part of what is to be processed must be imported. But Brazil is not only an exporter; half of soy-bean production is consumed locally. The oil-cake goes to the country’s poultry farms (frozen chicken for central Asia). So decisions are being made at the government level as to what parts should be retained for internal use. Miscalculation results in uprisings in the population or else in major losses. In Brazil the soybean has been a large factor in enhancing differences in income, and this naturally increases social tensions.
Everywhere in the world one senses the weakness of the present system, which should now be providing “daily bread” for everyone. It is not only oceans that separate producers from consumers or the animal from the source of its fodder, but also the factories with their complex manipulations that bring the food and feed into a state fit to consume. A variety of political measures, only marginally attuned to economic considerations, are further disturbances. The slightest push can endanger an entire nutritional system, though we may still hope that the close economic ties will prove capable of calming international conflicts.
It seems a further effort of America to undermine the self-sufficiency of every country, and thus to have them all in its power. The European Union has set out on the path suggested to it without reservation, a path of no return.
What is left for us to do? Too many interests, to say nothing of the whole outer framework of our civilization, oppose a political shift. Little can be expected from this side with the best of will. It is only local, individual initiatives that can bring about a new beginning independent of government. And only a spiritual-scientific basis gives agriculture the powers of resistance it needs in the long run to oppose the general tendency that is standardizing every sphere, subjecting them to purely economic points of view. But it is just as certain that every consumer who has learned to value the foods provided by such an agriculture must take a firm stand for its survival.
When we reflect on all this, we can sense why Rudolf Steiner returned to Dornach in June 1924 so deeply pleased with the Koberwitz agricultural conference. He was able to give us this cycle of lectures nine months before his death, lectures that lead much closer an understanding of what goes on in nature and that give us the hints that have led the biodynamic movement. Every single person who is able to acknowledge Rudolf Steiner must take this impulse to heart, for through it we are given the possibility to establish the basis for a truly human future.
Copyright information: This article–its first part highly condensed here–first appeared in the French periodical L’esprit du Temps. A German translation was published in Das Goetheanum for March 6, and March 13, 1994.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2001.