Soybean board tackles sustainability

By | June 15, 2010

Posted June 23, 2010

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, which 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, United Soybean Board director 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."

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 being blogged about on the new Web site.

"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 over the last 21 years, 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 1.17 tons 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 22.13 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 104.23 million pounds of carbon each year.

• Water use efficiency per bushel increased by 20 percent between 1987 and 2008.

According to USB director and soybean farmer from Palmer, Neb., Mike Thede, "There is a misconception that farmers aren't interested in the environment. 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
 
 
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