National Geographic : 1987 Jul
(Continuedfrom page 69) bean curd, has been made in China, where it was invented, for about 2,000 years. It is the most impor tant of the foods prepared in the East from the soybean, that remarkable vegetable that not only allows the Chinese to feed a quarter of the world's population on a tenth of its arable land, but is also a rock on which the Western diet is built and a major hope for averting world famine. cause the whole story began here, at least 3,000 years ago, when farmers in the eastern half of northern China started planting the black or brown seeds of a wild recumbent vine. Why they did this is unclear; plants that lie on the ground are hard to cultivate, and the seeds of the wild soybean are tiny, hard, and, unless properly prepared, indigestible. Whatever the rea son, the farmers persevered, and evidence suggests that by 1100 B.C. the soybean had been taught to grow straight up and bear larger, more useful seeds. These changes were sufficient to add the bean to the list of domesticated plants. The new crop arrived at the right time. The bean is wonderfully abundant in pro tein of the highest quality, and, within limits, grows well in soils too depleted to support other crops. The soybean plant sup ports colonies of microorganisms that return rent in the form of soil-enriching nitrogen; this was an important point in a civilization that had been farming many of the same fields for thousands of years. The enthusi asm farmers had for their new crop is sug gested by some of the names given different varieties: Great Treasure, Brings Happi ness, Yellow Jewel, Heaven's Bird. Over the next several hundred years the soybean spread from its center of domestica tion to become a staple of the Chinese peo ple. As it did, the third virtue of the bean (together with high food value and ease of Ell of beans, a U. S. cargo ship in Yokohama, Japan,awaits unload ing. The lowered tractorwillfeed the soybeans into huge suction noz zles. Almost half the U. S. harvest is sold overseas.