Japanese immigrants began arriving in Brazil near the turn of the century, as cheap labor for burgeoning coffee plantations. In 1908, at least one of those immigrants brought along soybeans, and planted them in a plot in the state of Sao Paulo. By the outbreak of World War I, soybeans had spread with the Japanese laborers to the far south of the country.
The immigrants planted soybeans in their own small plots, for their own consumption. Very few people even knew what soybeans were, and those who did usually ate them in the family kitchen.
It wasn't until the 1970s that farmers began to plant soybeans on a commercial scale here. But when soybeans did take off, they spread like kudzu. Farmers realized that the crop did well in Brazilian soils. And because they were a new crop, there were few insect problems to bring up costs and reduce yields.
Meanwhile, U.S. embargoes may have opened up new demand for South American beans. And so Brazilian farmers planted. Production went from near zero to 1 million metric tons in the 1970s.
In response to this growth, the federal government established the National Center for Soybean Research in the town of Londrina in Parana state. Known by the nickname Embrapa Soja, the center is part of Embrapa, the national ag research organ. It's charged with executing all types of research on soybeans.
"Embrapa Soja's mission is to create viable technical, competitive and sustainable solutions for soy agribusiness by generating and transferring knowledge and technology," says Caio Vidor, the center's head.
Put simply, the center uses research and extension to try to improve the Brazilian soybean picture. It's a panorama that has changed a lot since Embrapa Soja's inception exactly 25 years ago. Soybean production as we enter the new millennium has multiplied by a factor of about 30 over what it was at the outset of the 1970s. Soybeans have become a national crop, luring farmers and infrastructure to previously undeveloped parts of the nation.
Meanwhile, especially in the older planted areas, new problems are cropping up. Insectide resistance, problem weed populations and soil management issues have arisen as a result of a near soybean monoculture in certain areas of the south for the past quarter century.
Embrapa Soja specialists have worked on disseminating management techniques to reduce total outlays for ag inputs, which is important in the developing world. Roughly 6% of all insecticides and herbicides in the world are applied in Brazil, according to ag minister Pratini de Moraes.
In the developing world, the simplest solution is often the best. In spite of impressive work on transgenics, new variety development and technology-focused crop management solutions, some of Embrapa`s most inspired successes have also been the simplest responses. For example, the agency figures its researchers cut applications of certain insecticides by 50% across 5.5 million hectares by urging producers to use regular table salt to control populations of stinkbug that were developing resistance to the usual chemical arsenal.
For the past 20 years, Embrapa Soja has maintained a program to help farmers reduce field loss at harvest. It's estimated this simple education program may have reaped an additional $2.2 billion for Brazilian agriculture over its lifetime.
One of the programs Embrapa Soja touts the most, however, is aimed not at production, but at consumption. In parts of Brazil, annual incomes drop to levels approaching those of tropical Africa. Undernourishment is a challenge. So, since 1986, Embrapa Soja has been aggressively pushing human consumption of soybeans through its "Soy on the Table" program.
The agency set up a test kitchen to develop new recipes using soybeans, and distributed recipes across the country. Those original Japanese immigrants, who brought the soy plant with them to Brazil, would surely approve.