U.S. Soy: Committed to Sustainability

Sustainability is a key differentiator for the U.S. soy industry. Farmers’ conservation practices help them to grow a sustainable product verified by the SSAP.

From farm to table, every link in the U.S. soy value chain is deeply committed to sustainability. U.S. soybean farmers are stewards of their land, practicing sustainability at every step from planting to harvest, and the SSAP verifies that sustainable soybean production on a national scale.

As consumer demand for sustainability continues to grow, the U.S. soy industry stands ready. Demand for sustainably grown products is an ongoing and pressing consideration for buyers when sourcing soy. Each year, the United States produces a reliable supply of high-quality, sustainably produced soybeans.

U.S. Soy’s sustainability is both verified and measurable, says Abby Rinne, USSEC Director – Sustainability. Rinne points to the sustainability methods practiced by U.S. soybean farmers, the U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP), U.S. Soy’s lower carbon footprint, and a recent research report that examines how the U.S. soy industry can contribute to global sustainable development. “When it comes to sustainability, our farmers have always led the way, but it’s become increasingly clear this issue is important to everyone, especially consumers and end users in every part of the world.”

Sustainably Farming a Finite Resource, Land

U.S. soybean farmers’ commitment to sustainable farming practices protects valuable environmental resources, helping growers to preserve and protect their farming operation for the next generations. Continuous improvement helps to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In 1935, the Soil Conservation Act laid the groundwork for many of U.S. Soy’s sustainability initiatives. Today’s soybean production in the U.S. is based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations combined with careful implementation of best production practices such as cover crops, no-till, strip till, terraces, grass waterways and buffer strips. These methods, and more, allow U.S. growers to use less water, prevent soil erosion, and decrease energy use. U.S. farmers are keenly aware that land is a finite resource and strive to leave it in even better condition than they received it.

USSEC chairman and American Soybean Association (ASA) director Monte Peterson, who farms in North Dakota, recently spoke about sustainability and conservation during a virtual roundtable with the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Produce (CFNA). “We must be as efficient as possible while protecting our natural resources such as water, forestland and the farmland,” said Peterson. “It’s important to me and to my family and the employees who work for me, who depend on the productivity of the land that we take care of it — that just as we take from it, we give back to it. That means deploying sustainability practices such as no-till and the use of cover crops.”

Iowa grower April Hemmes, who serves as a director for the United Soybean Board (USB), often talks with customers about her sustainability practices. During a virtual presentation last spring, she discussed how she utilizes cover crops and no-till on her farm. “That is how I farm these hills, highly erodible hills, sustainably,” she said, gesturing to the rolling land behind her. “It keeps the soil in place, it keeps the water quality high with the cover crops, so no nutrients are going down to the water table or the stream bank down below. And I don’t do any tilling of the soil, so I get very little soil loss.”

Sustainability practices are not one size fits all. Illinois farmer and ASA director Ron Moore, who previously served as a director for USSEC, says it’s important for farmers to know their land. “We tailor our practices, our tillage practices, whether it’s conservation tillage or no-till to the soil types in the fields that we have,” he explains. “And so, we have a good mix of conservation tillage and no-till and that makes us be very efficient in our production practices.”

The SSAP: Verifying Sustainable Soy

Most U.S. soybean producers participate in certified and audited voluntary sustainability and conservation programs. The U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP), launched in 2013 as a response to customer requests for a supply of documented sustainable soy, is an aggregate approach audited by third parties that verifies sustainable soybean production at a national scale. The SSAP certifies shipments of U.S. Soy as sustainable based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations combined with careful implementation of best production practices by the nation’s 515,008 soybean producers.

As demand for sustainable soy keeps rising, the U.S. soy industry continues to meet customers’ needs through the SSAP and each year, more and more soy exports are verified sustainable. In the 2019/20 marketing year, 21.3 million metric tons (MMT), representing 36% of all U.S. soy exports, of verified sustainable U.S. Soy was exported worldwide under the SSAP, says Rinne. “The demand for verified sustainable U.S. soy exports has continued to grow since the SSAP’s development,” she continues. In 2014, the U.S. exported 6,845 metric tons of verified sustainable soy. “It’s clear that sustainability is top of mind for our buyers.”

U.S. Soy: A Lower Carbon Footprint

Additionally, research shows that the environmental footprint of U.S. Soy is shrinking. The Netherlands’ Blonk Consultants recently examined the environmental footprint of U.S. Soy compared to other sourcing countries for the European (and other) markets. Using a life cycle assessment (LCA), Blonk compared 1 kilogram (kg) of soybeans, 1 kg of soybean meal crushed at market, and 1 kg crushed in the country of origin.

Results showed:

  • Cultivation is the major contributor to carbon footprint. In general, the U.S. has higher yields, minimal fertilizer use, and efficient machinery, all of which help to minimize U.S. Soy’s carbon footprint.
  • Land use change (LUC), has a significant impact on carbon footprint. Deforestation in South American countries has had a negative impact on the carbon footprint of soy produced in that region. The United States is the number one country in the world for preservation of public forestry lands.
  • Since 1935, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has encouraged soil conservation programs. U.S. farmers take great care to protect and nurture their land with the intent to pass it to the next generation in even better condition than they received it.
  • The impact of soy on animal production is another key factor when comparing carbon footprints of soy from different origins. Blonk Consultants compared a case study from 2013, which included a mix of Dutch soymeal market mix, made up of mostly Brazilian and Argentinian meals to a Dutch market mix of soybean meal with U.S. soybean meal. The analysis found that the total impact of the carbon footprint of poultry was lower with the U.S. soybean meal.

Mapping U.S. Soy to UN SDGs

U.S. Soy: Commitment to Global Sustainable Development, U.S. Soy’s recent research report, examines how the U.S. soy industry can contribute to global sustainable development. In-depth research mapped industry priorities and opportunities for improvement to the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are 17 goals that aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. These aspirational goals anticipate a global population of 9.7 billion people by 2050. The 17 goals and their 169 underlying targets have become a common language to encourage communities, countries, businesses and entire industries to move in the same direction toward economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. Agriculture plays an essential role in addressing the SDGs and connects all 17 of these interconnected goals, making U.S. Soy a critical part of this solution.

As a global industry, U.S. Soy embraces sustainable agricultural practices, meeting today’s global needs for soy products without compromising the ability for future needs to be met. For U.S. Soy, sustainable development encompasses economic growth for soybean farmers and every link in the supply chain, meeting social expectations of product quality and business practices, and environmental protection through resilient agricultural practices.

Understanding and prioritizing the SDGs helps U.S. Soy to communicate more consistently and effectively with its global customers and stakeholders about their sustainability impact and performance, ultimately helping customers and end-users to uphold their own sustainability commitments. The U.S. soy industry invests in sustainable agricultural research and education to support continuous improvement to meet industry sustainability goals, and the SSAP verifies these ongoing efforts for international soybean buyers.

Research identified 15 environmental, social and economic material aspects of U.S. Soy, or the most relevant factors to address now and in the future to maintain its leadership role in sustainable agriculture. This assessment provided the foundation for mapping to specific SDGs and targets under those goals, identifying areas where U.S. Soy has the greatest impact in supporting progress toward global sustainable development.

The mapping process identified that focusing on Goal 2: Zero Hunger, would address all the top U.S. Soy priorities identified in the assessment. Soy plays an integral role in supplying high-quality protein for diets, and soy production implements resilient agricultural practices highlighted in the targets under Goal 2.

Three top priorities, which all map to Goal 2: Zero Hunger, emerged from stakeholder input:

  • Soil Health/Carbon Sequestration
  • Water Management
  • Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

Because the 17 SDGs are interconnected, U.S. Soy’s ongoing investments towards these top three priorities mean that the outcomes also support five other SDGs:

  • Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Goal 13: Climate Action
  • Goal 15: Life on Land
  • Goal 17: Partnerships

And in turn, agricultural advancements in these 5 areas also support U.S. Soy’s top priority - SDG 2 (Zero Hunger).

U.S. Soy’s focus on research and education for resilient agricultural practices encourages soybean farmers like Peterson, Hemmes, and Moore to continuously improve practices that address soil health, water management, and GHG emissions. These sustainability methods (and others) employed on U.S. farms positively contribute to achieving food security and improved nutrition and to promoting sustainable agriculture, as outlined in Goal 2: Zero Hunger. This is where U.S. Soy will have the greatest impact on people, prosperity and the planet, both today and in the future.

Between today and 2025:

  • U.S. soybean farmers aim to reduce land use impact (acres per bushel) by 10 percent
  • Reduce soil erosion (tons per bushel) by an additional 25 percent
  • Increase energy use efficiency by 10 percent (BTUs per bushel)
  • Reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent

These improvements occur through the adoption of new technology and proven best management practices.

As the importance of sustainability continues to ramp up in all markets – both developed and developing – many of U.S. Soy’s international end-users are using the SDG framework as a guiding star for their global sustainability commitments.