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The wild ancestor of soybeans is Glycine soja (previously known as Glycine usseriensis), a legume native to central China. Soybean has been used in China for over 5,000 years as a food and a component of many drugs and medicines. In 2853, the Chinese Emperor Shennong proclaimed soybean as one of the five sacred plants; soybeans, rice, wheat, barley and millet. However, rather than as a food crop, soybean was considered sacred for its use in crop rotation as a method of fixing nitrogen back into the soil and the benefits this provided to future crops. The soybean would be ploughed back in as a green manure and the field prepared for food crops. Cultivation of soybeans was long confined to China, but in the first millennium AD, China exported soybeans to many parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As a food source, soybeans were first used to produce fermented products such as soy sauce, tempeh, natto and miso. Fermentation was used to remove the high phytoestrogen content of soybeans. While it is generally claimed that this was their only use until recent times, there is historical evidence of soy milk and tofu being produced as early as 80AD.

Soybeans were first introduced into Europe and then the United States in the early 1700’s, where they were used primarily as an industrial crop. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that soybeans as a food crop was recognised by western culture and soybeans are now grown globally on every continent except Antarctica. World soybean production is approximately 230 million tonnes per annum and leading producers are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, China and India.