75 Million Acres of Soybeans, but no Edamame!?

Rob Meyer, The Tater Times (Papa Spuds). Sept 20/21, 2016.

These days, pretty much all of us have heard of and tried edamame at some point.  If you’ve been to a sushi restaurant (and who hasn’t!), you’ve probably ordered a bowl as an appetizer, or you’ve at least seen it on the menu.  You’ve probably seen it in salads at contemporary restaurants and cafes, and even in prepared foods at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s.  You probably also know that edamame, while foreign and different sounding in name, is actually just a type of soybean.  Edamame are green soybeans, that are picked before they reach full maturation, so that they can be eaten without additional processing – like a vegetable. 

The United States is actually the leading producer of soybeans in the world, they are our second biggest cash crop, just behind corn.  For this reason, you may be surprised to learn that when you go to a Japanese restaurant and order edamame, it is very unlikely that the edamame was grown in the United States.  In fact, the vast majority of edamame in our country is imported from abroad.  It’s strange also how rarely we see fresh edamame available at the grocery store, or at the farmer’s market. 

The USDA reports that we produced over 75 million acres of soybeans in 2011 ($40+ billion dollars).  So, why don’t we see more of these soy beans available to us as edamame? 

I posed that question to Cecilia Redding of Down2Earth farm, who is providing us with what seems like a rare find; fresh, locally grown edamame!  As I suspected, Cecilia started off by explaining the difference between edamame and commodity soy beans.  The vast majority of soy beans grown in the US are commodity soy beans, and they are quite different from their edible cousins.  Commodity soy beans can be processed into thousands of different forms, soy sauce, oils, tofu, animal feed, even plastics.  However, to reach a processing state, they are dried in the fields and hardened – which makes them inedible until processed.  In the end, edamame is a very different product from commodity soybeans, but they are still both soybeans.  Wouldn’t there be more domestic growers who would want to diversify just a little and grow edamame as well?  It can’t be that different, can it? 

Cecilia’s answer to that question was an emphatic “Yes!”  It can be that different, and it really is that different.  Pretty much everything about the cultivation of edamame is different from that of commodity soy beans.  First of all, commodity soy beans are dried in the field, so they are much more durable than edamame which has to be picked fresh and green.  For that reason, growers are able to plant huge fields of commodity soybeans, and use heavy equipment for extremely fast harvesting and processing.  Edamame requires very different equipment that is slower but processes the beans more delicately so that they are not damaged.  The bean varieties themselves are different for edamame than for commodity soy beans.  

Commodity soy beans have been big business in the United States for decades now, thanks to the processed food industry, and hundreds of different varieties exist for all growing conditions.  Edamame varieties are far more limited, and growers still have to go through a lot of trial and error to find the right varieties for their soils, climates, etc. 

Cecilia is actually working alongside NC State and other agricultural extensions that are trying to boost green soy bean production in the southeast.  One of the varieties of edamame she is growing this year was developed by NC State, and she is borrowing harvesting equipment from an agricultural extension group in Virginia. 

These groups have been working for over a decade to promote more edamame production in our area, but it is a long process, and still a long way behind commodity soy production! 

In reality, commodity soy bean production has become such a specialized and massive industry in itself, that it really doesn’t translate at all to combine with the production of green soybeans (edamame).  The two really are as different as apples and oranges, actually more so.  While commodity soy beans, like commodity corn, are used in many processed foods that we would probably be better off without – they have contributed to many positive advances as well.  There is clearly a place for commodity soy beans in agriculture and human consumption; but I’m glad folks like Cecilia are working to make soybeans available to us in their natural form as well.  There is so much that science and technology can do for us, but it’s important to remember that nature has already figured a lot of those problems out for us – perhaps our food production could better reflect both sides of that equation.