Review: The Story of Soy

 The Story of Soy. Christine M. Du Bois. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 266 pp. + References and Index. ISBN 978 1 78023 925 5.

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Ellen Messer, (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Boston University Gastronomy Program)

Anyone interested in global diet and agriculture should be interested in soy because it is by far the most grown oilseed and fourth most cultivated crop in the world (after the cereals maize, wheat, and rice) (p.223).  As a major source of plant protein, it sustains the diets of humans and livestock, and has contributed the world over to agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.  That said, this voluminously documented volume takes care to situate soy in its diverse historical and contemporary contexts. It shows how soy in each era paradoxically created conditions to sustain life, including fixing nitrogen for agricultural ecosystems, but also to destroy environments and societies through relentless and sometimes violent pursuit of food and wealth based on soybean cultivation, processing and distribution.

The opening chapter, “Hidden Gold,” introduces readers to the long-term history of soy, as a food, feed, and industrial crop, and to major flash points, like the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which made soy loom large in political-geographic history. Chapter 1, “Asian roots,” speculates about soy’s original domestication and diffusion as a significant food that was processed to facilitate and extend its nutritional reach. Chapter 2 documents the European history of soy, including war-related developments that expanded soy’s nutritional potential to feed hungry populations that could afford little meat.  Chapter 3 turns to United States adoptions and genetic and agronomic improvements for food, feed, and industrial purposes. Chapter 4, “Soy Patriotic” returns to Asian soy as a war and post-war crop.  Here the stories include post-World War II innovations, like citric acid processing that removed off flavors, and utilization of stainless steel processing equipment that prevented contamination. These stories include how soy became implicated the development of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which drew botanists into ethical and political opposition to the Vietnam (American) War after military scientists used their basic research understandings of crop maturation to de-forest Vietnam and expose fighters’ hiding places.

Chapter 5, “Fattening with Feed” covers developments of inexpensive, soy-based animal nourishment, which transformed and enabled concentrated poultry and pig production the world over.  Like all the other chapters, this one opens with a human, personal-interest story, then opens out onto implications for larger scale economies, social units, and national, regional, and world diets.  In this case, the human-interest story tells how “chickens dramatically changed the destiny of a rural woman, thirty-year-old Amal Ismail, as well as the lives of millions of her fellow Egyptians:

“Since the 1950s, both beneficial and injurious aspects of the mass feeding of soy to animals have powerfully shaped our world, thanks to the export of American techniques for livestock production.  Mrs. Ismail and her chickens serve as a humble yet revealing entry into a far larger story.  Our survey of soy and livestock will include a chicken-blood cookbook, giant economic aid programmes, airlifted hogs, corporate treatment of animals, antibiotics, wild-bird diseases, obesity, fecal river pollution, drowned hogs and more.” (p.93)

Positive and negative consequences pile up, as the world population in aggregate gains greater access to healthy protein, either directly by eating processed soybean products or indirectly by consuming more and cheaper soy-fed animal meats.   But this expansion, particularly of the soybean feed industry has not been without environmental destruction, covered in Ch.6, “Soy Swoops South” which scrupulously documents deforestation, erosion of land and biodiversity, and violence against the people who were already living there.  Country by country, soybean livelihoods demonstrably increased soy-related household, provincial, and national incomes, but also pitted subnational private soybean interests against state desires to establish and use soybean taxes and revenues to pay for national infrastructure and human development programs.  All also proved vulnerable to multi-national (biotechnology) seed and chemical companies, which imposed their will as they sought ever greater control over farmers and national agricultural regulations. Ch. 7 continues these discussions of corporate control over seeds, toxic chemicals, and water and land use.  But again, outcomes need not prove pre-determined.  As the author summarizes in the conclusion to this chapter,

‘           ’Growing soybeans and other crops poses many actual and potential challenges to environments, including habitat loss, monoculture, genetic modification, toxic chemicals, climate change, erosion, and depletion of fresh water.  But fatalism is misguided: the destructive effects of farming can (emphasis in the original) be mitigated through careful research and ingenuity.  No-till cultivation, pest control through organic methods or chemicals with reduced toxicity, effective penalties for environmental rule-breakers and a reduction in meat eating that drives so much agriculture can each make a genuine difference. The question is how much effort we will put into protecting our natural world. This is our only world. There is no other planet for us. There is no ‘escape hatch’ from our responsibilities—or from the consequences of our actions.” (p.172).  Readers here get a sense of the author’s ambivalent sensibilities, which are also passionate, and draw on a complete range of pro- and anti- technology advocates.

The book could have ended here.  But wait, there’s more.  The two-sided approach continues, in subsequent chapters on nutrition and international business and trade. Ch.8, “Poison Or Panacea” discusses the positives (accessible protein) and negatives (anti-nutritional and allergenic factors) associated with soy nutrition, and also certain health issues, like relationship between soybean consumption, female estrogen levels and male sperm counts, and a range of possible risks and benefits associated with more extensive genetic engineering of soybeans for food and medicine.  There are also added discussions of soy in disaster relief and food aid. Chapter 9 examines “Big Business”, which is largely under the control of a few very large agricultural production, processing, and trading firms, like ADM.  In this chapter, readers can follow the journey from mid-western farm to global feedlot or food processor.  The author adroitly unpacks the abstractions and workings of commodities futures contracts, including the thought processes of hedgers and speculators, winners and losers. (There’s even a reference to the 1983 hit movie, “Trading Places” and FBI investigation of fraud on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (pp.226-232)).  There follow the dynamic mergers and acquisitions among leading seed (biotechnology) companies competing for markets, the politics of managed markets and subsidies in industrialized, developing, and transition countries; and finally, the land grabs that have characterized soy-growing areas especially since the world food price crisis of 2007-2008.

These business and environmental concerns spill over into Chapter 10, on “Soy Diesel”, which continues country-by-country discussions of soy strategies such as  efforts to recycle soy oil in order to cut down on pollution and waste in Brazil and Indonesia.  In all these developing country stories, however, the reader sees the downsides, as small operators inevitably lose access to food and energy resources when world prices rise beyond their control.  The book ends with an “Afterword” about Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which harbors some 27,000 varieties of soy. This short chapter ends with a rehash of the individually grounded, cultural stories that show promise and peril inherent in soybeans, which are used as a “lens for new perspectives on our very selves.” (p.266).  Readers can decide whether they appreciate and want to use these reflections to structure discussions of additional, non-soy domains.

As I was preparing this review of Christine Du Bois’s comprehensive, The Story of Soy  (London: Reaktion Books, 2018) I happened to read an “early view” of Andrew Ofstehage’s (2018) “Farming Out of Place,” which describes “flexible farming” modes of production by a younger generation of mid-Western US farmers, who buy up and farm South American lands after they have been priced out of the land market in their home places of origin.  I also read and reviewed Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberal Diet, which covers some of the same territory from a quantitative, larger-scale agricultural and nutritional perspective, focusing in part on the huge growth of plant fats in global diets.  To cover community cultural and the “big” political economic picture, I’d recommend that readers and instructors in food-studies and anthropology of food, nutrition, and diet courses use all three sources together.

Finally, as someone who has followed Du Bois’ work on soy (Messer 2009, 2016), and also as someone trained in ethnobotany, I particularly appreciated Du Bois’ exhaustive dedication to exploring the entire range of relations between this economic and nutritional species and the human populations that have used and will continue to use it.  I look forward to reading comparative studies on other oilseeds based on the excellent research presented here.

References cited:

Messer, Ellen (2009) Review of: The World of Soy, by C. DuBois, T-C. Chan and  S. Mintz, Gastronomy 9,4:101-103. Access at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.issue-4

 

Messer, Ellen (2016) Remembering Sid Mintz. Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016. Access at: https://foodanthro.com/2016/01/04/remembering-sidney-mintz/

Ofstehage, Andrew (2018) Farming Out of Place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.  American Ethnologist 45,3: 317-329

Otero, G. (2018) The Neoliberal Diet. Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People. University of Texas Press.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, culture and agriculture, food history, food policy, food politics, food systems

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