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Soybeans Threaten Amazon Rainforest

Some 3,000 years ago, farmers in eastern China domesticated the soybean. In 1765, the first soybeans were planted in North America. Today the soybean occupies more U.S. cropland than wheat. And in Brazil, where it spread even more rapidly, the soybean is invading the Amazon rainforest.

For close to two centuries after its introduction into the United States the soybean languished as a curiosity crop. Then during the 1950s, as Europe and Japan recovered from the war and as economic growth gathered momentum in the United States, the demand for meat, milk, and eggs climbed. But with little new grassland to support the expanding beef and dairy herds, farmers turned to grain to produce not only more beef and milk but also more pork, poultry, and eggs. World consumption of meat at 44 million tons in 1950 had already started the climb that would take it to 280 million tons in 2009, a sixfold rise.

This rise was partly dependent on the discovery by animal nutritionists that combining one part soybean meal with four parts grain would dramatically boost the efficiency with which livestock and poultry converted grain into animal protein. This generated a fast-growing market for soybeans from the mid-twentieth century onward. It was the soybean’s ticket to agricultural prominence, enabling soybeans to join wheat, rice, and corn as one of the world’s leading crops.

U.S. production of the soybean exploded after World War II. By 1960 it was close to triple that in China. By 1970 the United States was producing three fourths of the world’s soybeans and accounting for virtually all exports. And by 1995 the fast-expanding U.S. land area planted to soybeans had eclipsed that in wheat.