U.S. soybean farmers play an important role in supporting food security, reliably delivering high-quality food and feed to help nourish people around the globe. That work is more important than ever today as we cope with the impact of international conflicts on our global food supply and agricultural inputs while pro-actively managing for the ever-increasing societal demand for sustainability.
But the U.S. soybean industry is also playing an increasingly important role in addressing other big societal challenges. Soybean oil is a growing source of renewable, cleaner energy, and our continual work to improve the sustainability of our operations helps to ensure that we’re delivering all of these solutions while also minimizing our environmental footprint.
Growing demand for food, feed, fuel and other products has resulted in unprecedented demand for U.S. soybeans, and farmers have answered the call, increasing production by 130% over the past four decades while using roughly the same amount of land. But that’s only half the story. Even as production has increased, over the same time frame we have also improved land use efficiency by 48%, irrigation water use efficiency by 60%, energy use efficiency by 46%, greenhouse gas emissions efficiency by 43% and soil conservation by 34%.
With the spirit of innovation, collaboration and dedication, my family farm has seen more change over the past 30 years than we had in more than 90 years prior. It wasn’t always easy; when we first adopted no-till in 1993, most of our community in central Iowa thought we were crazy. For a few years, it was nearly impossible to rent land to expand our operations. No one thought we would be successful.
Thankfully, we and other early adopters were able to prove the economic viability of what we were doing. Not only did no-till help to protect soil and reduce emissions, but our yields also continued to grow. In the ‘60s, my father considered 30 bushels an acre to be good yield. Today, anything less than 70 is a disappointment. As more soybean farmers adopt practices like no-till, nutrient management, cover crops and buffer strips, we are proving what many of us had long suspected: more often than not, doing the right things for the planet are also good for yields.
To be sure, more work is needed to optimize sustainability in farming. United Soybean Board and its partner organizations established ambitious goals for additional improvements in sustainability metrics by 2025, reducing soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency, all while protecting the land. To get there, we’ll need to look through the windshield instead of the rearview mirror and keep pushing in each of those pillars of innovation, collaboration and dedication.
On the innovation front, continued advances in areas like biotechnology, digital farming tools, precision equipment and variable-rate planting techniques combine to enable farmers to practically “farm by the foot,” using the right seeds and inputs to best match a particular field and expected conditions. These tools help farmers to maximize yields and optimize inputs to conserve natural resources.
When it comes to collaboration, we’re excited about programs like Farmers for Soil Health, a broad partnership between soy, corn and pork aimed at boosting use of cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030. If achieved, this goal could help to sequester an additional 7 million tons of carbon, reduce erosion by 105 million metric tons and reduce nitrogen leaking by 272 million pounds.
This teamwork is also key to pioneering new non-food uses for sustainably grown U.S. soybeans. Checkoff-funded research contributes to tremendous market growth for soybean oil as a feedstock for biodiesel, which not only provides a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, but has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86% compared with petroleum diesel, according to Clean Fuels Alliance America. The environmental attributes for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel hold promise for consumers and farmers alike. And research and development creates new uses for soy products, from artificial turf to pavement restoration to tires and even shoes, thanks to a recent collaboration between Skechers and Goodyear.
Of course, the final ingredient in soy’s sustainability story is dedication. U.S. farmers commit their livelihoods to preserving land, water, air and natural resources to carry on the legacy of their farms to future generations. We know that focusing in these areas will help ensure that our family farms continue to prosper. Our society is increasingly looking for more sustainable food and product options, yet consumer awareness of soy being a sustainable crop remains low, so education and outreach remains a priority. As a teachable moment, it’s yet another example of doing the right things for both our businesses and the planet.
Tim Bardole farms in Rippey, Iowa, with his wife Lori and three children, and alongside his dad, Roy, and brother Pete. They have a no-till, strip-till soybean and corn row crop operation. The Bardole family has two 2,500 pig-finisher barns and a 4,800 head nursery. Tim also serves on the Board of Directors for the United Soybean Board and the Iowa Soybean Association.
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