History of soybean

Encyclopedia Article

Soybean is one of humanity’s principle food crops. The who, when, where, and how soybean was domesticated in China and disseminated throughout the world is a fascinating story. A lot of controversy over the years has misled many about the history of soybean. In 2005, Hymowitz and Shurtleff published a very nice article in Crop Science (45:473-476) to clarify some of the “Debunking Soybean Myths and Legends in the Historical and Popular Literature”. The following information is from that article.

Soybean was introduced in Georgia in 1765 by Samuel Bowen. Bowen received seed from China, and referred to the plant as a Chinese vetch instead of soybean. The word soybean was not actually used until Dr. James Mease in 1804 began using it in literature. He referred to the word soybean as the bean from which soy sauce was produced. Bowen actually received a patent for this sauce that he made from soybean grown in America.

Current literature speaks of the way soybean was in fact introduced into the USA. Many sources report of a Yankee clipper ship that carried soybean as a food reserve and inexpensive ballast for the ship in 1804. Samuel Bowen, however, had already introduced soybean to the United States in 1765, many years before the report of the Yankee clipper.

Another false accusation is that Benjamin Franklin was the first to bring soybean to the USA from France. Franklin may have played a part in sending seed to the USA, as he was a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and was the US ambassador to France, but if he did however send soybean seed, it was much later than Bowen did in 1765. Based on the literature Samuel Bowen introduced soybean 5 years earlier than Benjamin Franklin’s soybean introduction.

Photograph of a farmer tilling the soil on a soybean fieldWhen many think of the name George Washington Carver, you think of his important role of researching peanuts. Although many publications in circulation talk about Carver playing an important role in introducing soybean to America. Carver did however work with soybean, using the crop in rotation with numerous other crops, but he did not have any part of introducing soybean to America.

Many more articles talk about soybean being one of the oldest cultivated crops, dating back 5,000 years ago in China. The beginning of the domestication of soybean may never be known, but research from China places the domestication of soybean around 3,100 years ago, instead of the 5,000 published in many articles. These articles also claim that soybean was one of the earliest crops grown. Although it is a crop that was grown many years ago, there are about 30 crops that precede soybean including rice, foxtail millet, wheat, corn, chickpea, lentil, and common bean.

So to recap everything, soybean is not one of the world’s oldest domesticated crops. Chinese records state that soybean can be dated back to the 11th century. Soybean was introduced to North America in 1765 by Samuel Bowen. He received a patent for making a sauce from Chinese vetches, which were in fact soybean.  Five years later Benjamin Franklin sent seeds from England to America. Lastly, George Washington Carver did not have any part in the development of soybean production in the USA, but was famous for his research on peanut.

Here is the link to read the entire article written by Hymowitz and Shurtleff (pdf).

Soybean Extension and Research Program