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The Lost Soybeans of Okinawa

In an excerpt from “Eating to Extinction,” author Dan Saladino visits Okinawa where one farmer is hoping to bring back one of the world’s rarest soybeans 

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Our food supply is suffering from a diversity crisis. Varieties of coffee, bananas, wheat, and more foods are at risk of being lost forever; preventing that loss is essential to the health — and deliciousness — of our food system. This is the argument Dan Saladino lays out in his book Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them.

the book cover for “Eating to Extinction”
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With each chapter, Saladino travels to the communities working to preserve some of the world’s rarest foods, from Salers cheese to lambic beer. Most resemble foods that appear commonly on grocery store shelves, and yet these precise methods, breeds, or strains would become extinct if not for the small groups of people dedicated to their survival. A village in eastern Turkey grows Kavilca wheat, a variety related to the wild grasses first domesticated by Neolithic farmers, but is now endangered; in Germany a group of farmers is bringing back the alb lentil, a plant that, when it grew wild in the Swabian Alps, helped to sustain and grow that Alpine community. And with each chapter, Saladino aims to answer the question he presents in the book’s introduction: “How can a food be close to extinction and yet at the same time appear to be everywhere?”

In this excerpt, Saladino goes to Okinawa, Japan to visit a single farmer re-growing the soybeans that once made the tofu essential to the Okinawan diet and explains how the soy boom in the West led to that no longer being the case. — Monica Burton

One thousand miles to the south of the Japanese mainland, right in the center of the Pacific island of Okinawa, Kenichi Kariki, a slight man in his early 70s, tends what might be the world’s smallest plot of soybeans. On this one-meter by five-meter clearing surrounded by a tropical wilderness, Kariki is attempting to bring back one of Japan’s rarest varieties of soy. Rare soy? How can that be? Newspaper headlines remind us of the problems caused by too much soy growing. Deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado, the Yungas “cloud forest” of Argentina and Bolivia’s Gran Chaco is most often blamed on the rise and rise of Glycine max, the small, yellow, oval bean we call soy, a legume so packed with protein it’s the number one ingredient for most of the chicken and pig feed on the planet. In 2020, demand for the global crop grew at its fastest rate in years.

But Kenichi Kariki’s bean is rare. So rare that even though he’s been growing it for three years, he hasn’t dared to eat a single bean. One day he hopes to have enough seed to share with farmers and bring the bean back for good. And so he saves each one, as if each tiny bean were a precious artifact, which in Kariki’s eyes it is.

Before Okinawa was turned into a Japanese prefecture in the 1870s, it had been an independent state, the Ryuku kingdom, for centuries, with its own emperors, dynasties, language, culture, religion, and soybean. This landrace soy was called the O-Higu, and it’s the one Kenichi Kariki is trying to grow. What Kavilca wheat had meant to people in eastern Turkey, or the Alb-linse to the inhabitants of the Swabian Alps, the O-Higu was to people on the island of Okinawa: survival, identity and self-sufficiency. Since the 14th century, farmers would plant the bean in the spring, at the first sight of the cherry blossom. O-Higu grew faster than other varieties of soy, which meant that by the time the rainy season arrived, the beans could withstand their biggest threat, the insects brought by the hotter, humid weather. So farmers saved and passed on its seeds.

The origins of soy lie in northern China where, 6,000 years ago, farmers began domesticating the plant. Three and a half thousand years ago, during the Shang dynasty, the bean first appears in written records as fodder for animals and as an ingredient in porridges for humans. Even after hours of cooking, the legume has a tough outer layer and an intense bitter taste.

Early converts to soy overcame this problem through fermentation, allowing bacteria to break the bean down. First came a basic condiment called jiang which, with the addition of salt, rice or barley, evolved into miso. But the real masterstroke that turned soybeans into the equivalent of “daily bread” for many Asian cultures was the invention of tofu, an almost miraculous seeming transformation of bitter beans into white blocks of tasty food. A mural inside a 2,000-year-old tomb in Henan Province, central China, depicts the steps in tofu making: first, making a “milk” by cooking the beans, then coagulating the liquid by adding sea salt and, when it’s sufficiently thick and silky, pressing it into blocks. The expansion of Buddhism and its vegetarian principles out of China into other parts of Asia also spread soybeans and tofu. In the 12th century, Japanese Shinto priests were placing tofu offerings at holy shrines. By this time, soybeans had arrived on Okinawa.

The Ryuku kings governed from the magnificent red-tiled Shuri Castle built in the capital city of Naha, in the south of the island, and this was the destination for the sakuho-shi, China’s imperial ambassadors. China, the giant empire across the sea to the west, was the greatest influence on the kingdom at that time; it granted the Ryuku kings their power, provided much of the island’s trade, and shared its seeds and culinary techniques. This is how the O-Higu bean arrived on Okinawa, as well as shima-dofu (island tofu), a softer, silkier form of tofu than is found on the Japanese mainland, closer to the Chinese tofu tradition.

A “Survey of Japanese People’s Diets” recorded in the late 19th century — by which time Okinawa was under the control of Japan’s Meiji dynasty — found that a typical Okinawan meal consisted of tofu and “sweet potato and miso soup with plenty of vegetables” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their mostly plant-based, soy-rich diet led to Okinawa later being listed as one of five blue zones — regions of the world in which people live exceptionally long and healthy lives. But, in the mid-20th century, a strange and unexpected shift took place in their diet. By the 1960s, the people on Okinawa were still eating tofu, but the O-Higu bean had gone extinct and the soy they ate instead was grown in the American Midwest.

Of all the seeds humans have domesticated and cultivated for food, what makes the soybean so exceptional is not so much the compounds it contains, but the quantities involved. Roughly 20 percent of a soybean is oil and 35 per cent is protein, high proportions as far as legumes go. Soy had been of interest to American scientists since the 18th century and by the 1850s it was one of the legumes used as a rotation crop in the American South. But it was only in the early 20th century that the real potential of its protein and oil started to be exploited, in most part thanks to an incongruous combination of plant collectors, entrepreneurs and religious leaders.

Soy’s great ascendancy in the West started to build in the early 1900s, when the United States Department of Agriculture began to send botanists, including the legendary seed collector Frank Meyer, to Japan, Korea and China, to build up a collection of soy varieties. The 4,500 soybean samples sent back were put to the test in experimental field trials. Around 40 were approved for commercial use by the USDA and posted to farmers for cultivation.

As the supply of the bean increased, so did demand for soy products. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church endorsed soy as an ingredient suited to the strict vegetarian regime its members were expected to follow. One of these, the food entrepreneur John Harvey Kellogg (of cornflake fame), believed the bean had great potential for improving human health. Kellogg had already developed soy products that had similar textures to meat — precursors of the lucrative meat “alternatives” made today — and launched “Corn-Soya Shreds.” “There’s no other cereal like it!” ran the ads.

Meanwhile, industrialists were also busy using soybeans to make paint, soap, textiles, and plastics. While physicists were splitting the atom, chemists in the USA were deconstructing the soybean, extracting constituent parts and finding uses for its abundant oils and proteins. Henry Ford was an early evangelist of the legume, building the body of a car completely out of chemically processed soy, spraying it with paint made from the bean and stuffing the seats with soy-fiber. The food industry fell in love with soy as well, processing it into ever greater quantities of margarine and cooking oil. Another component of soy, lecithin, became the most widely used emulsifier, and a crucial ingredient in ready meals, salad dressing and chocolate. By the 1950s, the United States was growing so much soy (including American-bred varieties, such as the fattier, higher-yielding Lincoln bean) that it had enough of a surplus to export. One of its biggest customers would be Japan.

In the spring of 1945, US marines and the Japanese Imperial Army clashed in the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day battle is known on the island as tetsu no ame (“the rain of steel”) because of the ferocity of the bombardment. Ninety thousand combatants died and Okinawa’s population was halved. Hundreds of farms on the island were left devastated and others were cleared to make way for what would become one of America’s largest overseas military bases, with more than 50,000 US troops. Under US occupation, more sugarcane was planted as a cash crop, replacing the diverse foods farmers had grown for islanders. Instead, Californian rice, wheat from Kansas, tinned American pork (Spam), and soybeans grown in Iowa were imported. There was little incentive to save the O-Higu as huge amounts of soy were imported to Asia, not only from the USA but, increasingly, from other parts of the Americas.

But in the 1970s the soy boom really intensified. This boom has a lot to do with a diminutive fish. For decades, vast shoals of anchovy were caught just off the Peruvian coast and used as the major protein source in the poultry and cattle industries. But in 1972, a combination of overfishing and El Niño led to Peru’s anchovy harvest dropping by nearly 90 percent. A protein panic rippled out across the agricultural world.

To protect its own industries (and prevent meat prices going up), the Nixon administration restricted exports of American soy. This, in turn, had an impact on Japan, by now heavily dependent on American supplies. Realizing just how dependent and vulnerable it had become, Japan began to put a long-term plan in place. There was no other big supplier to turn to, and so it had to create one. Brazil had been a marginal player in the soy business, but with Japanese investment and the clearance of virgin forest, including parts of the Cerrado, it became a giant. In 1960, Brazilian soy production was less than 300,000 metric tons. In the 1980s, helped by newly developed soy cultivars suited to the Cerrado’s acidic soil, this increased to around 20 million tons. The 2020 harvest, of 130 million tons, broke all records and exceeded the size of the American crop putting Brazil on course to become the undisputed world leader of soy cultivation.

As this soy boom was taking place, behind the scenes, transformation of the global seed industry was also under way. The $4 billion soybean seed market became the major battleground. Already, soy grown across the Americas was based on a small number of genetically uniform varieties, all grown in monocultures, making them vulnerable to pests and diseases.

The solution was genetically modified soy. In 1996, Monsanto launched Roundup Ready soy, a plant resistant to the glyphosate-based herbicide (or weed-killer) of the same name. The product had been developed after a chance discovery; a bacterium spotted growing inside one of Monsanto’s waste ponds was found to have resistance to Roundup, and genes from this bacterium were transferred to create a new variety of soy. Syngenta followed with its own version, VMAX, then, not to be outdone, Bayer with a variety called Liberty Link. By 2014, more than 90 per cent of all soy grown across North and South America was GM.

Consolidation wasn’t only a feature of the soy seed business; the global trade in the bean also became heavily concentrated among a small number of companies. For many years this was the so-called ABCD group: Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bunge, Cargill and (supplying the D from its middle name) Louis-Dreyfus Company. These companies and the soy they trade have helped to turn food production into what a report by Oxfam described as the “complex, globalized and financialized” business it is today. Food prices, deforestation, land and water use are all influenced by their activities. In 2016, the picture changed (slightly); Asian companies, including one owned by the Chinese government called COFCO, started to exert more control over much of Brazil’s soy exports and China became the main driver of soy expansion in South America, to feed a rapidly growing population of pigs and chickens. The future of the Cerrado depends to a great extent on Chinese diets.

In 2012, I paid a visit to the C of the ABCD group, Cargill. It owns the biggest soy-processing plant in the UK, the Seaforth refinery, a large, anonymous-looking building on the waterside of Liverpool’s docks. There, I met the operations manager who showed me through a network of large open spaces, with a snake of steel pipe winding its way through the entire building, joining up vast, unfathomable blocks of machinery. One of these was sending out a hum as it turned the round beans into flakes.

Apart from the manager, there were only a handful of other people here, as most of the work was automated. Nearly a million tons of soy a year were being processed at the site, the equivalent of three square miles of soy plantation every day. Once a month, a ship arrived from Brazil containing 60,000 tons of beans which needed five days just to unload. Turning it into oil, protein and lecithin took a lot less time, about four hours. This was mostly done through “solvent extraction” in which hexane (a chemical side product of the petroleum industry) dismantles the bean’s compounds, putting every possible molecule of protein and oil to use. This happens inside a tower, 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall, and involves a massive piece of equipment that emits an ear-punishing drone.

As we followed the pipe network, we reached the “de-solventiser,” which removed the hexane and made the soy edible. From his pocket, the manager pulled a small vial filled with a sample of thick yellow oil to show me what was being made. In the hands of food processors, this product is used to make cooking oil, salad dressing, mayonnaise and margarine. At the end of the production line were big, yellow dumper trucks parked up next to what looked like a sand dune made of yellow powder. Forty-eight percent protein, I was told, and destined to be turned into animal feed.

Soy protein has made a greater impact on our planet and transformed diets more fundamentally than any other plant material in recent history. Around 70 percent of the world’s soybean protein is used to feed poultry and pigs, and most of what remains goes to cattle, sheep and farmed fish. Since the soy boom, the global pig population has more than doubled to a billion, while poultry numbers have increased more than sixfold to more than 22 billion. In the case of fish, feed from soy has helped a new species to flourish: farmed Atlantic salmon.

But what soy has given the world in food abundance, it has taken away in biodiversity, including the loss of virgin forest. A soy moratorium introduced in 2006 reduced deforestation in the Amazon, but since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, levels have increased again and thousands of square miles of forest cover have been lost. The moratorium was never extended to the Cerrado. Just 20 percent of Brazil’s tropical savannah remains undisturbed. Soy also exerts a huge influence on geopolitics. In the summer of 2019, when a trade war broke out between China and the USA, one of the first industries targeted by tariffs was the soybean trade.

On Okinawa, most memories of the O-Higu and its tofu had faded into obscurity and the last known seeds belonged to a farmer who died in the 1970s. At the beginning of the 21st century, Kenichi Kariki started looking for Okinawa’s O-Higu seeds. The search took Kariki to a seed collection at Okinawa’s Ryuku University where, 50 years before, one of the university’s botanists had stored seeds away for safekeeping. It is those seeds that are now growing in Kariki’s small soy patch.

I visited Kariki on Okinawa in 2018, when there were just enough seeds to be shared out with farmers around the island. “When we eat island tofu again made with O-Higu soy it will be a big day,” he told me. “It’s a food no one has tasted for more than half a century.” During the Second World War, Shuri Castle, the physical symbol of the Ryukyu kingdom, had been burnt down, but that had been relatively easy to restore. Reviving a lost food culture isn’t so simple; it’s less tangible, more complicated, but no less important. “Okinawa deserves to have its own crops back,” Kariki said. To outsiders, O-Higu might appear an insignificant bean. “But to many Okinawans, after colonialism and occupation, its return feels like an act of resistance and a celebration of who we are.”

Excerpted from EATING TO EXTINCTION: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them by Dan Saladino. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Dan Saladino. All rights reserved. CAUTION: Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.


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