Soybeans are sustainable farming in the US.

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Life Cycle Study Shows Soy Continues to Grow More Sustainable

By John Cooper, United Soybean Board director
Soybean farmer, Wynne, Ark.

Today, probably one of the most overused, misunderstood and most difficult to accurately measure business practices proves to be the concept of sustainability as it relates to the environmental impact of many industries. U.S. soybean farmers have long been good environmental stewards.  Soybeans represent one of the most popular legumes – plants that naturally restore valuable nitrogen to soil. Precisely for that reason, soybeans represent one of the most common oilseeds as part of a crop rotation. The soybean checkoff has demonstrated, in several ways, the sustainability of U.S. soybeans and soybean production.

The United Soybean Board (USB) and the soybean checkoff collaborate with U.S. agriculture industry leaders, as well as with the industry’s customer base, to measure and establish a baseline for sustainable U.S. soybean production. The checkoff’s definition of sustainability reads: “Sustainable soybean agriculture will meet the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs by adoption of technology and best practices that increase productivity to meet future needs while being stewards of the environment, improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food and enhancing the social and economic well-being of agriculture and its communities.”

The United Soybean Board (USB), the farmer-driven research and promotion checkoff organization for U.S. soybeans, recognizes the need to support the poultry and livestock industries. For years, animal agriculture and its customers have been subject to increasing concerns over environmental and animal welfare issues. Soybean checkoff-funded research shows that urban and suburban populations mistakenly view animal agriculture as a problem and overlook its critical contributions to our nation and world.

A recent checkoff-funded study reviewed the life cycle profile of U.S. soybean production and showed the multiple energy and environmental benefits of U.S. soybean farming and processing. A few key findings from the study include:

The 3.36 billion bushels of soybeans grown in the United States last year removed the carbon equivalent of taking 21 million cars off the road.
On average, soybean yield increased 12 percent from 2004-2007 to 42.3 bushels over data collected from 1998 to 2000.
The calculated release of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas, is 85 percent less than previous calculations.
The updated data shows approximately 20 percent less direct energy used in soybean farming due to reduced diesel and gasoline usage.
 Soybean processing facilities have cut energy consumption by 45 percent in the last 10 years.
One part of the study looked at a life cycle impact assessment for four soy-derived products used to make such things as soy biodiesel and plastics – methyl soyate, soy lubricant base stock, soy polyol and soy resin – using the updated life cycle inventory. This information shows these soy-based industrial products each significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to similar petroleum-based products. All four of these soy-based products also cut the use of petroleum, some of which is imported from countries hostile to the United States.

The study represents the first comprehensive life cycle study covering U.S. soybean production and four major soy biobased products. U.S. soy already delivers environmental and energy benefits, and it’s exciting to see the trends point to even more benefits in the future.

And that study shows just one example of U.S. soybean production sustainability.  The independent, nonprofit Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture created a report that helps track sustainability performance in U.S. agriculture.  Early analysis shows that soybean production proves to be more efficient today than it was 20 years ago. Soybean farmers have reduced energy and irrigated water use as well as reduced carbon emissions per acre, all of which contribute to more sustainably produced U.S. soy products.

Another example of USB’s commitment to sustainability came when USB requested the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) compile a report that evaluates the current and projected future status of soybean production in the United States. The comprehensive review of soybean research findings leads to the conclusion that common soybean production systems are environmentally sustainable and can be managed for profit when proper practices and technologies are used.

In addition, USB placed a link to a Fieldprint Calculator on its Web site, www.unitedsoybean.org. The free, confidential tool can be used by soybean, corn, wheat and cotton farmers who want to monitor the sustainability performance of their operations.

The soybean checkoff remains committed to help improve the environmental footprint of the entire U.S. soybean industry. U.S. soybean farmers proved to be strides ahead of the growing sustainability movement, and many have already made changes on their farms that will help make the entire U.S. soybean industry more sustainable. As a soybean farmer, I’m proud of the work we have done to become more sustainable and to demonstrate the sustainability of me and my fellow soybean farmers. As a checkoff farmer-leader I will continue to help promote sustainability within the U.S. soy industry and to our existing and new customers. They’re our soybeans. We can be proud to put them to work for us, our country and world in many different, sustainable ways.

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914 Spruce St. • St. Louis, MO 63102 • 888-235-4332 • Fax 314-726-6350 • www.unitedsoybean.org

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.