History of Soy in the Middle East


by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi


A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s


Copyright 2007 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

For the purposes of this section we will define the Middle East as extending from Israel and Saudi Arabia in the west, to Turkey in the north, and Afghanistan and Iran in the east. Egypt and Libya, sometimes included, have been grouped with Africa.

Historical Overview . The earliest known cultivation of soybeans in the Middle East was in Iran in 1939. Soybeans were first grown in Turkey in 1940 and in Israel in the early 1940s. Thus soybeans got a late start in this dry region, and production was insignificant until the mid-1970s.

The first large scale use of soybeans in the Middle East began during the 1950s, and increased rapidly thereafter, as Israel imported soybeans from the US and processed them in Israeli oil mills to yield soy oil and soybean meal (for livestock feed) (Fig. ??.?). The first development of soyfoods in the Middle East was done during the 1950s by Eliahu Navot and others in Israel.

Until 1973, Turkey was the leading soybean producing country in the Middle East, but annual production never exceeded 13,000 tonnes (metric tons) a year, a very small amount. In 1973 Iran passed Turkey and by 1976 had become a significant soybean producer, with an output of over 100,000 tonnes by 1976 (Fig. ??.?). Soybean varieties provided by INTSOY and adapted to the area played an important role in this expansion. Turkey and Iran remain the only two countries with significant soybean production in the region. Iran was also a large importer of soy oil from 1977-1979. The rising interest in soybeans during the 1970s was due largely to shortages of edible oils and rapidly expanding poultry and dairy industries (Soybean Digest, Sept. 1975; Hafiz in Judy and Jackobs 1981).

Dr. Raja Tannous, professor of food technology and nutrition in Lebanon, reported in Soybean Update (1979) that there was great potential for incorporating soy protein products into traditional Mideastern foods, especially those served by institutions such as the army and schools. Traditional breads, soups, dips, sausages, and ground meat were cited as likely candidates for extension. Identified soy oil had already been well accepted. The use of soy in favorites such as hummous and felafel holds real promise. Yet to date, soyfoods still play a very small role in Mideastern diets.

We will now give a brief history of soybeans and soyfoods in each country of the Middle East having a significant history. The countries are arranged in alphabetical order.

Iran . Soybeans were first grown in Iran in about 1939 (Amirshahi, in Whigham 1975), but in about 1970 interest in soybean cultivation began to increase sharply. Soybean production rose steadily from 6,000 tonnes in 1970 to 112,000 tonnes in 1978, after which time the turbulence of the revolution (the Shah was driven from the country in January 1979 and Khoumeni returned in February) caused a sharp decline in 1979 and 1980 (Fig. ??.?). In 1973 Iran had passed Turkey to become the largest producer of soybeans in the Middle East. Soybeans have been grown primarily as a source of edible vegetable oil; the meal is used for feed in the country's burgeoning poultry industry. Rising affluence and population in Iran after the jump in petroleum prices in 1973 led to large increases in vegetable oil usage, requiring increased imports. By 1973 Iran was importing 80% of its vegetable oil needs, and 80% of the imports were soy oil, mostly from where?? By 1977 Iran's soy oil imports had reached 45,000 tonnes, jumping to 115,000 tonnes in 1978, but from 1979 on they fell to zero because of the revolution and hostility towards the US.

Israel . It is not clear when soybeans were first grown in Palestine or Israel, but their development and popularization after the 1930s or 1940s was pioneered almost single-handedly by a remarkable man named Eliahu Navot. Born in the Ukraine in 1894, Navot immigrated to Palestine in 1912 and became a cattle farmer. In his search for fodder crops of high food value during the 1930s, he discovered the soybean, and during World War II he began developing high yielding varieties on his farm at Herzlia. During the war, Prof. Chaim Weizmann, the eminent scientist and first president of Israel, told workers of the prestigious Agricultural Research Station at Rehovot that the successful cultivation of soybeans had priority over the production of cannons, because whereas cannons are of no use as a source of soybeans, soybeans can be turned into cannons. Yet the major use of the soybean is as an extremely nutritious food. After the war, Navot and Weizmann met and discussed their mutual interest, as Weizmann was actively advocating the introduction of the soybean to Israel. In 1950 Bergmann, Weizmann, and Willstater at Rehovot confirmed the importance of soy in the fight against world hunger and reported on a soy powder they had developed.

In 1949, with the encouragement of Agriculture??, Navot left on a 1-year world tour to study soybeans and soyfoods. He returned to Israel with scores of new seeds and new ideas, then for the next 9 years devoted himself wholeheartedly to the search for the strain of soybean most suited to Israel. By 1959 the Ogden, renamed the Herzlia, was giving excellent yields. During this time Navot also did extensive and creative work with soyfoods. His home at Herzlia became a center of extension work in popular nutrition, home economics, and recipe development. Day after day he prepared a variety of soyfoods delicacies, which drew the praises of his many visitors and friends, and eventually of epicures and of the President of Israel. His soy falafel was the number one favorite.

During this period Navot also traveled up and down the country to introduce soybeans and soyfoods. At scores of settlements, colleges, schools and other institutions he gave lectures, distributed pamphlets and seeds, and prepared soyfoods meals . . . all free of charge at his own expense. His enthusiasm and selfless effort were contagious. He catered wedding feasts and Passover gatherings with Israel soyfoods recipes. He supplied free soybean seeds to over 30 settlements and eventually saw the soybean acclimatized in almost all parts of Israel. He used soyfoods as a basic part of his own daily diet and everywhere he went people were impressed to see what excellent health and vitality, and what boundless energy he had for a man 65 years old. But above all people admired his spirit of selfless service. Navot wrote a number of pamphlets on soy, which he printed and distributed at his own expense. He gave recipes and wrote about soyfoods such as soy sprouts and soy coffee. He concluded "I appeal to all, and in particular to our experts on nutrition and economics, to disseminate this precious and nutritious food for the good and peace of Israel."

Over the years the farm press had given good coverage to Navot's experiments. Then on 4 November 1959 Ha'aretz , the most influential and widely read paper in Israel, wrote a major story about his work, which led to a subsequent spate of articles from other publications. His work with soy became known to people throughout the country. Illistrierte Velt (18 Nov. 1959) wrote: "With the Navot family you can eat fish and meat, bread and soup, cakes and even borscht. And having finished and blessed God and your host, from whose table you have eaten, he will tell you his big secret, that all of this food was made from the wonderplant, the soybean." In 1960, when the Soybean Council of America began to operate in Israel and to open a soyfoods test kitchen, Navot was one of the first to offer his services. The Council eventually published a moving tribute to his work, a 36-page book entitled The Story of Eliahu Navot: The Soybean Pioneer of Israel (on which we have drawn heavily). Navot had done in Israel much the same type of work that William Morse had done in America, and he soon came to be known as the "Father of Soybeans in Israel;" his friends amiably referred to him as "the soybean monomaniac" or, in his older age as Hamelech Soya , the "Soybean King." He passed away in about 1980 at age 86.

During the 1950s Israel began to import large quantities of soybeans from the US; these were processed into oil and meal at Israeli mills. Mazur (1963) was able to report that Israel had imported 213,000 tonnes of soybeans from the US in 1962. As the country had 2.2 million inhabitants, this was believed to be the highest per capita import rate in the world. He also reported that there was widespread interest in fresh green soybeans and many new health food stores carried soybeans. "If this continues, Israel will probably be the first country in the world outside the Far East where soy proteins will become a substantial part of the diet of the population."

Despite Navot's efforts to introduce soybean farming to Israel, local farmers could not compete pricewise with their American counterparts. Consequently during the 1960s and 1970s Israeli soybean production fell to zero and imports skyrocketed, reaching a high of about 400,000 tonnes between 1974 and 1978, but falling thereafter as local wars made foreign exchange scarce?? During this period Israel built up a thriving poultry industry and had the highest per capita chicken consumption in the world. This was the major outlet for soybean meal. De (1971) reported that a plant had been established in Israel to make textured soy protein from defatted soy flour. Soy oil became Israel's most popular and lowest cost vegetable oil.

A new wave of interest in soyfoods started in Israel in the late 1970s, influenced strongly by the soyfoods movement in the US. In 1978 Israel's first tofu shop, Pillar of Dawn Tofu, was opened by Avraham Sand and Ben Zion Solomon at Moshav Me'or Modi'im. Soymilk, tempeh, and miso were also produced. The tofu was curded using bittern from a salt factory on the Dead Sea. By March 1982 the Sachnut?? ("Jewish Agency") had plans to finance the expansion of this plant to one large enough to supply most of the supermarkets in Israel with these three soyfoods. By 1982 there were three tofu shops in Israel and the soyfoods movement was just entering its beginning stages. Several American observers were surprised that the soyfoods movement was growing so slowly, given the perennial Jewish pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, and the ability to recognize the value of a new idea quickly.

Saudi Arabia . In 1973 the Ministry of Agriculture and Water started soybean field trials and in 1974 these were expanded using seeds from INTSOY. Yet by 1975 no soybeans were grown commercially (Jowana, in Whigham 1975). As of 1982 Saudi Arabia had not imported soybeans, oil, or meal from the US.

Turkey . Since 1940 soybeans have been grown in Turkey under rain-fed conditions in a limited area along the east side of the Black Sea coast. During this period and until 1973, Turkey was probably the leading soybean producing country in the Middle East. Production grew from 6,000 tonnes in 1963 to 13,000 in 1972, then slowly declined to only 3,000 in 1979, but rebounded to 30,000 in 1981. The peak national yield, 2,429 kg/ha was attained in 1974. The soybeans were used mostly for vegetable oil and poultry feed (Izgin and Onder, in Whigham 1975).