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How India, overcoming its prejudice for soy, now offers the world a model for sustainable use of the bean

India is now the world’s fifth largest producer of soy, with production centred in regions like Vidarbha and Madhya Pradesh where planting experiments took place in 1935.

, ET Bureau|
Dec 07, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
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Soy was not unknown in India. It has long been grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the Northeast, presumably reaching there from China.
In May 1935, The Times of India (ToI) carried a small report from the province known in British India as Berar, now Vidarbha: “Attempts are being made by the Amraoti District Village Uplift Committee to introduce Manchurian soya beans, as an additional commercial crop.”

Both the name used for the beans and the timing are significant. Manchuria, now a northeastern region of China, close to Korea and Japan, has been identified as a likely area for early domestication of the beans and creation of the first of the immense range of products made from soy.

And as Christine M Du Bois suggests in The Story of Soy, her admirably researched and balanced new book, it was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, largely fought over possession of Manchuria, that showed the potential of soy to affect global events.

The war was won by Japan, the first major victory by an Asian power over a Western one. It weakened the Russian imperial government, paving the way for the Communist takeover, and it encouraged the Japanese imperial government in its wider ambitions.

Du Bois notes that among the factors that helped the Japanese was their diet: “Japanese fighters survived in part on the protein in fermented soy and on dried frozen tofu, which is lightweight for long marches and also made from soy.”
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Vast tracts of Amazon rainforest were burnt down to create fields for soy planting; (inset) soy beans

Acquiring Manchuria gave the Japanese access to its soy production, one of the few areas in the world where it was widely cultivated.

This helped, both as food and in the industrial uses made of soy oil, in preparing Japan for further battles. But there was enough surplus soy for Japanese traders to sell to the UK, helping industrialists and farmers realise the potential of soy, and leading to calls to plant it across the British Empire.

Soy was not unknown in India. It has long been grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the Northeast, presumably reaching there from China. Soy sauce had been imported from Japan, presumably for consumption by the British. William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, the most assiduous documenters of soy history, note attempts made to plant soy in the agricultural experimental farms established by the British in places as far apart as Poona, Coimbatore and Saharanpur.

Mahatma Gandhi was also interested in soy. He probably first learned of it from the writings of JH Kellogg, the nutritionist (and inventor of cornflakes) who he admired.
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Mahatma Gandhi was also interested in soy


Kellogg was a Seventh Day Adventist, a Christian sect whose belief in vegetarianism combined with missionary work in Asia made them aware of soybased meat and milk substitutes. Adventists would be early promoters for soy cultivation and use across the world.

In November 1935, Gandhi wrote admiringly in his Harijan magazine of Narhar Bhave of Baroda (father of his disciple Vinoba Bhave) who “is living almost wholly on milk and six ounces of soybeans and is keeping perfect health and strength”. Gandhi wrote that they were now trying out the “Manchurian variety” in his Maganwadi ashram, steaming them for two hours before eating. He later compared them favourably with peanuts, since soy contained less starch, and enough protein to allow people to reduce consumption of ghee and dal.
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Soy protein forms the mainstay of the mid-day meal


Yet, all these endorsements would come up against stubborn resistance from Indian consumers. In August 1939, ToI reported a debate in the Bombay Presidency legislature where BG Kher, the prime minister, replying to a soybean enthusiast, stated firmly that “many cultivators had grown them successfully, but there was no demand for the people did not like the taste and the beans were also hard and were difficult to grind or cook”.

An even stronger prejudice against soy developed during World War II when the US, by then one of the largest producers, tried to supply food aid to Indian troops in the form of soy chunks. Feeding Indian troops was notoriously tricky, because of religious prejudices against beef and pork, and requirements that animals be killed the appropriate way. Americans felt that soy chunks, which were vegetarian yet meatlike, would solve the problem, but Indian troops hated them, and this probably perpetuated an aversion to soy.

This prejudice has lingered, creating a curious situation where soy is an increasingly important part of Indian diets, yet few will admit wanting to eat it. Soy protein forms the mainstay of the mid-day meal programme for schoolchildren, but organisations like Akshaya Patra that provide it are accused of using it to promote their vegetarian agenda instead of supplying eggs for protein.

India is now the world’s fifth largest producer of soy, with production centred in regions like Vidarbha and Madhya Pradesh where planting experiments took place in 1935. Soy nuggets are widely available across India and are turned into nutritious meals, but these dishes will almost never be found in restaurants. Tofu,sold as soy paneer, and soy milk is widely available, yet finds few enthusiasts outside health food stores and vegan restaurants.
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In the film Axone, the attempts by a group of young Northeasterners in Delhi to cook pork with axone are used to show wider prejudices

People assert that they never eat soy, because of claimed allergies or aversion to the taste, without realising how much soy is in processed food products they consume all the time.

This aversion to soy is particularly evident in one of the few indigenous soy foods. In the Northeast, soybeans are fermented to give a product called axone or akhuni.

This is highly nutritious, with the fermentation process unlocking nutrients that are hard for humans to digest in plain soy, and adding microbes that may help the health of our digestive systems. Yet aversion to the beans’ smell can be so strong that it inspired a recent film titled Axone, where the attempts of a group of young Northeasterners in Delhi to cook pork with axone is used to show the wider prejudices faced by Northeasterners in India.

Rising onion prices have caused protests and ridicule of the finance minister for suggesting people don’t have to eat them. Soy prices have also risen recently, but consumers couldn’t care — unlike in Indonesia where soy is much valued. Du Bois writes that in 2008, unrest due to rising soy prices gave an opportunity to the Hizb ut-Tahrir group: “Their orators exhorted hundreds in attendance to embrace ‘the advantages of Islamic civilisation through the establishment of the Caliphate and Sharia law’ as solutions to price spikes and poverty.”

Yet, there was a time when India seemed to be developing a more open acceptance of soy. In the 1950s, as the newly independent nation was grappling with the challenge of feeding its millions, soy seemed a promising solution. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research identified varieties suitable for cultivation in different parts of India, with different varieties suitable for food processing, animal feed or oil production.
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Soy is ingeniously turned into nuggets and nutritious meals

Industrially processed food from soy fit the Nehruvian emphasis on technology for development.

Mysore and Bangalore were particular centres of research, thanks to the presence of the Central Food Technology Research Institute and Indian Institute of Science respectively. As early as 1946, ToI reported an experiment where 5,000 children in primary schools were fed free mid-day meals, where 1,600 received rice with soy curd and the rest got rice with cow milk curd.

The soy curd children were found to be quite as healthy as the larger group.

In the 1960s, as recurrent famine made the food situation in India worse, interest in soy foods grew. By 1974, it wasn’t schoolchildren but members of the All India Congress Committee who were being offered “the choice between Moglai dishes and a soybased ‘janata meal’.” The former comprised roti and two sabzis for Rs 2, while the latter comprised “pulav or roti, soup or sandwiches for one rupee”.

Yet, it was the wider response to food shortages, in the form of the Green Revolution and, even more, the White Revolution in dairy production, that was to sideline all this soy interest.

As wheat became more widely available, the use of soy flour diminished. As milk production increased, interest in soy milk decreased.

By 1983, the Soybean Processors Association of India was complaining of a surplus due to decreased demand for soybeans. By the next year, India was exporting soybean products to the Soviet Union.

This might not seem a bad thing. Du Bois’ book scrupulously records the problems resulting from the world’s increasing demand for soy. In an example of how climate change and trade wars play out in unforeseen ways, she explains how the 1973-74 El Nino event caused a drop in anchovies caught off Peru, which were mainly used to make animal feed for the US. Alarmed by the potential rise in input costs of meat, president Richard Nixon’s government briefly banned the export of soy, which was an alternative for animal feed.
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William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi are the most assiduous documenters of soy history


This caused consternation in Japan, which hugely depended on American soy for all the wide range of foods they made from it.

Resolving not to be caught out like that again, they promoted production of soy in Brazil and Argentina, investing in developing varieties that could survive in tropical conditions and helping build the infrastructure that would help export the beans.

Soy has now become a dominant crop in these countries, leading to widespread burning of the Amazon rainforest to create fields for further soy planting — and helping bring Jair Bolsonaro to power, heavily supported by soybean interests. Even worse, most of this soy protein is going to feed livestock, a process that is highly inefficient compared with humans consuming soy protein directly. This expanded livestock production results in extensive environmental damage, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and causes extreme cruelty to animals.

Yet India’s use of soy protein, primarily for vegetarian consumption (though use for livestock is rising), offers the world a model for proper, sustainable use of soy. Whether it is soy protein cooked in mid-day meals, “mealmaker” nuggets used by housewives, the soy paneer now being made to Indian tastes, lightly salted and with vegetables pressed in, the soy milk being sold as energy drinks, the soy flour used to make fried snacks and even products like Indonesian-style tempeh, which were pioneered in India by foreign enthusiasts like Lisa Camps at her vegan restaurant, Bean Me Up in Goa, there is a wide range of options for soy seekers in India.

Du Bois examines the health objections to soy, and shows how many of them are not proven by research — and, even more, are disproven by the fact that many of us eat soy without realising it and without ill-effects. Of course, this isn’t ideal, since food should be consumed in an open, informed and transparent way. But this simply points to the need for a deeper engagement with soy, to understand its benefits and potential in India, and to consume it openly, when we choose, rather than unknowingly allowing soy’s stealth intrusion into the food that India eats.

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Tofu is widely available in India as soy paneer

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