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Soy Extravaganza

29 April 2024

Did you know it's National Soy Foods Month? I'll find any good reason to celebrate! The US produces over 4 billion bushels of soybeans every year and exports about half of it.  In case you were wondering (I was!), a bushel is about 60 pounds of soybeans, which would yield 11 lbs. of crude soybean oil + 47 pounds of soybean meal.

I do love legumes, and soy is my second favorite bean (if you can name my favorite one, I'll send you a top tofu recipe). I discovered that there is so much more to soy than tofu and soy milk! A couple of weeks ago, I met Barry (Barry's Tempeh) at the Pleasantville Farmers Market - he makes fresh frozen tempeh - unfortunately, he was sold out by the time I got there, but I promised to go back when he comes again (full review coming in May).

Soybean farmers have increased productivity over the past few decades, but much of their yield is now exported. Currently, US soybeans hold 30% of the global export market share (down from 75% of all soybean exports before the 2018 trade war with China). Even today, nearly half of all exports to China is soybeans ($16.4B). That might make you think it's all becoming tofu, but the biggest consumer (97% of all soybean meal) is actually the livestock industry - pigs, chickens, farmed fish and cows.

Only 7% of all soy produced globally is used for direct human consumption - in things like tofu, soy milk, edamame and tempeh. Soybean oil is also the most widely used vegetable oil in the food industry and can be found in products ranging from salad dressings to pet food...plus a lot of things that have nothing to do with food.

Predicting reduced demand from China (due to competition from Brazil, where soy fields grown for livestock may be an indirect driver of deforestation!), US soybeans have found use in tires, tennis shoes, aviation fuel and over 1000 other products listed here, but that's a whole other conversation…

Since protein is such a hot topic, and most soy is used for poultry feed, I decided to figure out the most efficient way to “grow” protein for food (thanks ChatGPT for some help with the calculations). Due to the extra fiber found in tofu (a good thing!), chicken is about 3x more concentrated in protein by weight. However, it takes 3x the [soy] protein feed to produce an equivalent amount of chicken (even with the sadly short grow time of industrial farms). So, based on straight soy inputs, it seems to be a wash (although this does not take into account land and water use for poultry).

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