The History of the Soya Bean

Henry Ford is mostly remembered for the Model T Ford, manufacturing, mass production and improving the lot of the factory worker. But he should equally be remembered for his extensive soybean experimentation and research.

A farm boy himself, Ford became interested in a new agricultural concept –farm chemurgy, which put chemistry and allied sciences to work for agriculture. He was interested in finding new industrial uses for farm crops, and improving crops from a nutritional point of view.

Ford established a farm laboratory and began experiments to determine which plant or legumes offered the most promise. After extensive research he decided to focus attention on the soybean, rich in versatile oil, high in protein and fibre.

In the early 1930’s Ford planted three hundred varieties of soybeans and urged farmers to follow suit, assuring them that Ford Motor Company would provide the market for soybeans. By 1933 his experimentation was rewarded with the discovery of soybean oil that made superior enamel for painting motor vehicles and oiling machinery.

“By Now”, Fortune magazine reported in late 1933, “he is as much interested in the soya bean as he is in the V-8”. Ford ensured soybeans went into the paint, door handles, window trim, and accelerator pedals and timing gears of every Ford car. In addition he also widely used soybeans in knobs, switches and gear lever knobs in his motor vehicles.

The history of the soybean is an amazing, as well as an ancient tale.

Domestication of the soybean took place on a noticeable scale during the Shang dynasty (approximately 1700 B.C.). By the first century A.D. the soybean probably reached China and Korea. From about the first century A.D. to the Age of Discovery (15-16 th Century), soybeans were introduced to Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal and India. The commercialisation of the soybean throughout this period was due to the establishment of sea and land trade routes, as well as migration of various cultural groups throughout the orient.

During the Age of Discovery, European visitors to the orient noted the use of a peculiar bean from which various foodstuffs were produced. In particular, Francesco Corletti noted a strange sauce used by the Japanese in their fish dishes. The Italian traveller was the first westerner to experience Soya sauce!

Soya sauce became a common item of trade between east and west.

The soybean eventually made its appearance in Europe in the early 1700’s, at first as animal feed and display product.

The soybean made its way into the world by the 1765’s. Benjamin Franklin amongst others sent this little bean to North America, where it was embraced in newspapers, agricultural journals and in letters written to the Commissioner of Patents.

The little soybean is arguably a great success story due to a melting pot of trade, politics, technology, agriculture and the explosion of knowledge of nutrition and health.

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