Taking Glycine to the max!

The Story of Soy by Christine du Bois 2018. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Before encountering Christine du Bois’ book, The Story of Soy, I had little real idea about what soy was. OK, as a botanist I know it was a legume, Glycine max, I’d heard of – and used, occasionally too liberally! – soy sauce, and had enjoyed Bean Feast meat-substitute soy meals as a student, but I had no appreciation of quite how big soy was as a global phenomenon and business. I suppose recent news items such as “Soybean seedling diseases surge in Illinois” and “Quick Takes: Early soybean diseases surge”, which I noticed on social media outlets that I keep an eye on, should have given me an inkling of soy’s import and relevance, but they didn’t *.

But, now, having read The Story of Soy, I’m left in absolutely no doubt that this small seed is huge. And I mean absolutely ginormous! Du Bois’ book is nothing short of a revelation and thoroughly recommended to anybody who wants to gain an insight into how the modern world works. That’s today’s world which so often is fueled by deals between governments and vested agriconomical interests, whose tentacles of influence extend globally, and often have a ‘glycinous’ dimension. Indeed, so penetrative is the world of soy, it’s probably not too outrageous to suggest that the story of the 20th century – and continuing into the 21st century – is the story of soy. At least that’s the view one can easily form after reading du Bois’ book.

Not only will The Story of Soy enlighten you about many topics, it’s all done – and importantly – in a carefully balanced way: du Bois doesn’t pick sides; she simply delivers intelligent, evidence-based writing. Additionally, The Story of Soy is extremely well-written**, with some really nice stylistic flourishes, and is an almost effortless read. But, it’s not a book to get through in one sitting; there’s just so much within its 266 pages of text that one’s head soon fills up with all the facts it contains and you have to put the book down and have a rest before resuming. In fact, there’s so much information in the book that each chapter could easily act as a separate, stand-alone, seminar or lecture topic in a modern-day plant biology programme. And that’s especially relevant to today’s audience as du Bois makes clear that it’s not just the plant, but the plant-and-people interactions, that make The Story of Soy‘s subject matter so fascinating and – somewhat surprisingly?! – a quite gripping read. We all need to eat: Since soy finds its way into many of the things we eat, whether that be plant-based diets or those with more of a meat focus, we’re all affected by soy and what those who make a living from soy do, and don’t do.

But, why is soy so interesting/important? These two excerpts from the book should answer that question:

“Soy is the most grown oilseed in the world by far, and the fourth most cultivated of all crops… The sheer bulk of soy production, along with its globalism, has made soy the third most internationally traded plant on earth by weight. Soy fields bestow the U.S. with its second most valuable legal harvest, after corn (both are likely behind marijuana). Soy products constitute the most valuable crop export for six countries [all in the Americas, a long way from where the crop originated in northeast Asia…] … the value of harvested soybeans came to an impressive $123 billion in 2013” [p. 223].

and:

“Soy, as a primary world crop, is implicated in numerous controversial, world-changing processes – deforestation, extinctions, trade negotiations, genetic engineering, renewable energy, global warming and the global rise in meat production (with further impacts on animal welfare, human nutrition and air and water quality). Soy is massively important to the way our world functions.” [pp. 264-265].

Summary

The Story of Soy is a great story, told by a great story-teller: Read it! *** And a lovely bonus is that it contains one of the best accounts I’ve read on what plant genetic engineering is – and isn’t(!)


* Now, having read the book, I can better understand the reasons/concern behind – and consequences of – actions that generate headlines such as “As Trump’s China Tariffs Kick In, US Farmers Watch Prices Slide”.

** Pleasingly, I only noticed one ‘typo’, near the bottom of p. 175: “Men rightly ask if they should they stop eating soy” [in a section examining claims that soy is leading to reduction in male fertility, if you’re wondering what the context of that phrase is…].

*** Is it just coincidence that publication of this important book about soy is close to the date of publication of the genome of a Chines soybean [see Shen, Y., Liu, J., Geng, H., Zhang, J., Liu, Y., Zhang, H., Xing, S., Du, J., Ma, S., and Tian, Z. (2018). De novo assembly of a Chinese soybean genome. Sci China Life Sci 61, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11427-018-9360-0]? Probably…