Global demand for soybeans has soared in recent decades, with China leading the race. Nearly 60 percent of all soybeans entering international trade today go to China, making it far and away the world’s largest importer.
The soybean was domesticated some 3,000 years ago by farmers in eastern China. But it wasn’t until well after World War II that the crop gained agricultural prominence, enabling it to join wheat, rice, and corn as one of the world’s four leading crops.
This rise in the demand for soybeans reflected the discovery by animal nutritionists that combining 1 part soybean meal with 4 parts grain, usually corn, in feed rations would sharply boost the efficiency with which livestock and poultry converted grain into animal protein. As China’s appetite for meat, milk, and eggs has soared, so too has its use of soybean meal. And since nearly half the world’s pigs are in China, the lion’s share of soy use is in pig feed. Its fast-growing poultry industry is also dependent on soybean meal. In addition, China now uses large quantities of soy in feed for farmed fish.
Four numbers tell the story of the explosive growth of soybean consumption in China. In 1995, China was producing 14 million tons of soybeans and it was consuming 14 million tons. In 2011, it was still producing 14 million tons of soybeans—but it was consuming 70 million tons, meaning that 56 million tons had to be imported.
China’s neglect of soybean production reflects a political decision made in Beijing in 1995 to focus on being self-sufficient in grain. For the Chinese people, many of them survivors of the Great Famine of 1959–61, this was paramount. They did not want to be dependent on the outside world for their food staples. By strongly supporting grain production with generous subsidies and essentially ignoring soybean production, China increased its grain harvest rapidly while its soybean harvest languished. More