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Soya beans

Soya is top of the class; it's a really useful plant that everyone approves of. If farmers, nutritionists and food technologists were to get together to create the perfect food crop, many people think it would be the soya bean. It may not be much to look at, but farmers can grow it without spending money on nitrogen fertilizer inputs and it produces 40% more protein than any other plant.

The undeniable benefits

The protein in a soya bean is an almost perfect mix of all the amino acids, so it's nutritionally ideal for people and animals. Furthermore, by contrast with many other beans that are fat-free, soya beans contain over 20% oil, naturally with an exemplary balance of fatty acids, extremely high levels of vitamin E and up to 35% easily digestible carbohydrates. This dream package of nutrients also has unusually high levels of lecithin (a group of compounds that are invaluable as an emulsifiers in the food industry). In other words, soya is almost the perfect food, though it might not star for flavour.

Late arrival from East Asia

People in East Asia were aware of its value, maybe not in this scientific detail, but intuitively and empirically. They cultivated soya beans and discovered how to eat soya in the form of tofu, miso and tempeh. It was only during the industrial revolution that soya beans found favour in America and Europe – as a cheap and filling food for factory workers. This pattern was continued during the world wars when a lot of army rations were stretched with soya products as a cheap form of protein. The pemmican sausages that were made mostly of soya flour became notorious with American media calling soya the "Nazi bean".

Soya today

Today, when many people are trying to eat less meat or even none at all, soya's reputation has improved considerably. It's considered a complete food, healthy and tasty. And demand has soared. From tofu steaks to soya latte macchiato – soya finds its way into a huge variety of foods and beverages. Despite this boom in demand, soya for human food uses only 3% of the total world production, most of the rest is used as animal feed. Soya is an ideal animal feed, worldwide millions of cattle, pigs and chickens are fed with cheap mostly genetically modified soya. It is grown mainly in the USA and South America. Over 110 million hectares are currently planted with soya – an area three times the size of Germany. Unfortunately this also means that the biodiversity of savannah and Amazonian forests is being destroyed in order to make way for soya bean fields.

But at least in Europe, there has been a change and areas planted with soya in traditional growing countries such as Italy, Serbia and Romania are expanding again. And even in Germany, long considered unsuitable for growing soya, 2015 was a record year with 17,000 hectares in cultivation. And this is only the beginning, if Germany wanted to grow all the soya currently imported as animal feed, there would have to be 2.3 million hectares devoted to its production.

Source: Jürgen Beckhoff, www.aid.de

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