There are roughly eight billion people in the world today, and projections suggest that there may be another billion within the next two decades. As agriculture works to keep up with an exponentially growing demand, the soybean has come as a welcome staple food to help fight world hunger.
There are three primary reasons that the soybean in particular has become such an important crop, globally: it is nutritionally rich, is efficient to grow, and can be used in the production of a vast range of foods that are used worldwide.
Native to Asia, soybeans have a centuries-old history in traditional cuisine. These include many familiar goods such as soy milk and soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, natto, and cooking oils. About 85% of soybeans produced in the world today are either extracted for oil or ground into meal for animal feed, and the rest is used for food. In addition to traditional Asian recipes, soy has found its way into many American grocery aisles, as an alternative to many meat and dairy products.
Soy is known as a complete protein, which means that it can replace meat in the diet without risking protein deficiency. This is especially important for poorer regions, where meat can be hard to come by (and exorbitantly expensive). Soybeans also contain a wide range of essential nutrients and minerals. One 100 gram serving, uncooked, contains: (in terms of Daily Value) 37% dietary fiber, 121% manganese, 101% phosphorus, 37% iron, and 94% folate. Minerals include zinc, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin K.
Soybeans are also much more efficient to grow. Higher yields in smaller spaces makes irrigation easier, and helps farmers with smaller plots to get more from their harvests. Recently, a biologist at Washington State University, Mechthild Tegeder, performed research that resulted in an even more dramatic increase in both production and quality. These findings could eventually be extended to other staple crops, putting soybean research on the forefront of the search for future food solutions.