Soybeans, along with such derivatives as tofu, miso, and tempeh, may still sound foreign to American supermarket shoppers. Yet today it would be hard to call any product more American than the soybean.
Based on booming sales at home and abroad, or on the industry's firm commitment to free-market principles, the versatile bean ranks as a serious rival to apple pie as a symbol of America.
But soybean producers warn that unless this country practices the free trade it preaches, the soybean bonanza may be lost. Specifically, they warn against using import controls to protect the US automobile industry because such controls would likely bring retaliatory measures against major US exports, such as soybeans.
The producers point out -- in the words of one spokesman --Scandinavia, "while we have a $9 billion trade deficit in autos . . . our trade surplus in agricultural products exceeds $14 billion."
Despite such impressive earnings, soybeans growing in their long rows, with two or three small round beans per shriveled pod, may look like so many weeds to the uninitiated. But soy oil is used in more than 80 percent of all US margarine, cooking oil, and salad oil. Since extracting a pound of soybean oil yields 4.7 pounds of high-protein meal as a byproduct, this "bonus" is widely used to improve the quality of baked goods and boost the protein content of a great variety of foods. And as if that weren't enough, it also is used around the world in livestock feed.
The cash value of the US soybean crop also makes it a key American product rather than a foreign curiosity. Despite being a relative newcomer to the US crop list, last year's soybean harvest was worth more than $15 billion, making it the largest cash income-earner for US farmers.
Soybeans also are the leading agricultural export commodity, accounting for $ 8.6 billion of last year's $40.5 billion in US agricultural exports. Soybean exports are expected to double over the next 10 years, giving them a still-larger share of the trade as world food demands escalate due to both population growth and demand for higher-protein diets.
Yet soybean producers are worried about the future, seeing the chief threat coming from government interference with free-market forces.
The soybean's newcomer status has worked to its advantage in one important way, according to producers. Unlike more traditional farm products, soybeans remain almost entirely free of government "meddling." Production has never been complicated by the target price, reserve, or set-aside programs used to adjust supply and prices for other farm commodities.
"The soybean industry in America has evolved around a free world market," American Soybean Association president Frank Ray told the Senate Agriculture Committee recently. "The basic laws of supply and demand in the world marketplace have signaled farmers when to increase production, and we feel those laws should be allowed to continue to work in the future."
To keep soybeans unencumbered by government programs, Mr. Ray is asking Congress to enact a new provision in the 1981 farm bill to prohibit the US Department of Agriculture from imposing restrictions that "would interfere with normal soybean marketing." He also is pressing for congressional action to prevent the government from imposing selective embargoes on agricultural exports -- such as the current Soviet grain embargo.
To keep pace with world demand, the 630,000 US soybean producers last year contributed $7.8 million to fund private research and market-development activities. But they add that the government must increase rather than cuts its own programs to expand foreign markets. The way to reduce costy income-support payments to American farmers, say soybean producers, is to return to spending 0. 3 percent of annual agricultural export value on expanding markets overseas -- percent, which leaves the US far behind its major competitors.