The pods, stems and leaves of the plant are covered in fine brown or grey hairs. The leaves have 3–4 leaflets per leaf, which are 6–15cm long and 2–7cm wide. The flowers are small and self-fertile and can be white, pink or purple. The plant sheds the leaves when the seeds are mature. The fruit of the plant (the pod) grows in clusters of three to five, is 3–8cm long and usually contains two to four (rarely more) seeds that are around 5–11mm in diameter. The seeds of soybeans occur in various sizes, and the seed coat (hull) in many colours, including black, brown, blue, yellow, green and mottled. The hull of the mature bean is hard and water-resistant.
Soybean is widely grown around the world with the United States of America, Argentina, Brazil, China and India being the largest producers and representing more than 90% of global soybean production. The bean has a long history of production in China where it has been grown for over 5,000 years. In Australia, wild soybeans were discovered in north eastern Australia in 1770 by explorers Banks and Solander. In 1804, the first soyfood product, a sauce called “Fine India Soy” was sold in Sydney. In 1879, the first domesticated soybeans arrived in Australia, a gift of the Minister of the Interior Department of Japan.
The Australian soybean industry is based on non-genetically modified varieties and is relatively small, complex and opportunity based, depending upon global commodity markets and weather conditions. However, it is a valuable summer rotation crop that can be used in dryland or irrigated farming systems and is grown in conjunction with cereals and sugarcane.
The growing regions for soybean in Australia are diverse and grow from the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland down to the irrigation areas of northern Victoria. There also is a small industry based in the Ord River region of Western Australia.
Soybeans are best suited to climates with hot summers and they usually take 80–120 days from sowing to harvesting. They can grow in a wide range of soils, with optimum growth in moist alluvial soils with a good organic content. Soybeans, like most legumes, form a symbiotic relationship with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria of the genus Rhizobium to provide nitrogen to the growing plant. They also make an important contribution to the sustainability and profitability of farming systems as a rotation crop as they improve soil fertility and are used to provide a disease break.
Historically, the Australian soybean industry has been based on the use of the bean for crushing for oil, however there is now growing interest in the potential use of soybeans for culinary purposes. These products include milk, tofu, flour, and edamame.
The soybean industry in Australia is considered an established industry represented by Soy Australia.
Facts and figures
- Soybeans are grown in dryland situations or under irrigation, and grow in regions from the Atherton Tablelands of Queensland to northern Victoria
- They are grown for culinary purposes, or for crushing in the oilseed industry where the by-product meal is an important livestock feed
- They may also be grown as a green manure crop, as forage for grazing, or for hay and silage production
- Significant premiums are paid for culinary quality soybeans
- Australia is a net importer of soy-based products, primarily driven by demand for meal, which is unlikely to change significantly in the short to medium term
- Soybeans are a valuable crop in rotations and add nitrogen to cropping systems through a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria.
Soybeans generally constitute about 60% of the world oilseed production and they are considered one of the most important agricultural commodities. The United States of America, Argentina, Brazil, China and India are the largest producers of soybeans and represent more than 90% of global soybean production. Of the average 260 million tonnes produced worldwide each year, about 10% is used directly for human foods, about 20% is extracted for oil and the remainder is used for livestock feeds.
Australia is one of the smallest producers of soybeans in the world. Production of soybeans in Australia can be significantly affected by drought, and since about 2005, national production has fluctuated from 32,000 to over 100,000 tonnes from 14,000–56,000 hectares. Generally, the largest producing state is New South Wales and the smallest is Victoria.
Australia is a net importer of soy-based products, primarily driven by demand for meal, and this is unlikely to change significantly in the short to medium term.