At a time when sustainability is hotter than ever, what's often missing is a clear definition of what exactly the trendy term means. U.S. soybean producers are working to change that through a new Web platform, www.usbthinkingahead.com, that defines the concept and points to agriculture as the original sustainability success story.
"Many people define and measure sustainability differently, and the discussion about what it really means can generate more heat than light," said David Wilson, USB Sustainability Initiative Chair and soybean farmer from Lincoln, Ala. "Agriculture has been working well for 10,000 years, so it has always been sustainable historically. But soybean producers are doing some innovative work recently to improve on that success and make sure soybean production continually decreases environmental impact and remains sustainable going forward."
According to Wilson, U.S. soybean sustainability also extends beyond the farm. High-quality feed, which represents the primary use for soybeans, helps significantly increase the efficiency of livestock production. With most soy being used for livestock and aquaculture feed, there are sustainability benefits that result from U.S. soy through increased production efficiency, Wilson said.
"Soy-based feed ingredients provide excellent nutrition," Wilson said. "Using soy for animal feed increases the efficiency and decreases impact per unit of output from poultry, beef and pork operations."
For USB, defining soybean sustainability accurately is far more than a marketing goal. Wilson says there's a lot more at stake than most people realize.
"In just 20 years, the amount of grain-producing land per person is projected to drop to one-third of what it was in 1950," Wilson said. "At most, there is 12 percent more arable land available that is not presently forested or environmentally marginal. Meanwhile, the World Water Council projects that in just 10 years, the need for fresh water will be 17 percent higher than water availability. These are significant problems that threaten the food supply, yet these issues get little media attention amidst all the green chatter that's going on."
USB's efforts to address those challenges are the subject of a blog at www.usbthinkingahead.com, along with a Twitter feed and other social media sites.
"We're trying to proactively define and measure our industry in an effort to showcase what we're already doing as producers," said Doug Goehring, a soybean farmer from North Dakota. "We've made great strides in production agriculture in this country. We have been practicing sustainability, we are sustainable, and we'll continue to perfect that."
Those improvements are being measured through studies such as a recent report by Field to Market, a multi-stakeholder group comprised of grower organizations, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organizations, which documented recent improvements in soybean production. The study found:
- Soybean production increases since 1987 resulted in soybean land use per bushel decreasing by 26 percent. "Without those yield improvements, we would have needed to add land area about the size of Indiana into production to meet the current demand for soybeans," Wilson said.
- Energy use decreased 1.34 million BTUs per acre, or 54 percent from 1987 to 2008. In the same period, energy use per bushel decreased by 61 percent due to more sustainable farming practices.
- Soybean growers decreased soil loss by more than one ton per acre, or 37 percent over the study period. In 2008, soil loss per bushel was 46 percent less than in 1987, resulting from shifts in production practices including reduced-tillage adoption.
- Soybean farmers have reduced carbon emissions by 22 pounds per acre or, 24 percent over the study period. Emissions per bushel decreased 35 percent. Since 2000, the soybean industry has reduced overall carbon emissions by an average of 104 million pounds of carbon each year.
- Water use efficiency per bushel increased by 20 percent between 1987 and 2008.
"There is a misconception that farmers aren't interested in the environment," said Mike Thede, a USB farmer-leader and soybean farmer from Palmer, Neb. "Farmers grow their product in the environment, so it's in our best interest to take care of the environment."
Given that agriculture has kept pace with demand in the past, it has always been sustainable, Wilson said, but continual improvements are needed to keep production in step with demand and natural resources: "Soybean producers are working to make sure soybean production remains sustainable, continuing to deliver more food while decreasing impact at the same time."
SOURCE: United Soybean Board.