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Versatile and cheap: a global history of soy in the first half of the twentieth century*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 October 2013

Ines Prodöhl*
German Historical Institute, 1607 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA E-mail:


This article traces the complex and shifting organization of soy's production and consumption from Northeast China to Europe and the United States. It focuses on a set of national and transnational actors with differing interests in the global and national spread of soybeans. The combination of these actors in certain spatiotemporal contexts enabled a fundamental change in soy from an Asian to an American cash crop. At the beginning of the twentieth century, soy rapidly became Northeast China's cash crop, owing to steadily increasing Western demand. However, the versatility of soy – and soy oil in particular – offered a highly successful response to the agricultural and industrial challenges that the United States faced during the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of the war, American farmers in the Midwest cultivated more soybeans than their Chinese counterparts.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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In March 2012, I presented an earlier version of this article at the International History Seminar at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I would like to thank the participants for their many helpful comments. I am also grateful to William Gervase Clarence-Smith and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism and suggestions. Many thanks also to the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, which funds my work, and in particular to Mark Stoneman for his extensive editorial help.


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