Updated: September 21, 2021
U.S. soybean farmers have pursued sustainable practices for the benefit of their farms for decades and they focus on continuous improvement with each succeeding generation. Today’s consumers demand sustainable products more than ever, and they increasingly expect proof of sustainability.
Through their checkoff, U.S. soybean farmers have an enormous impact on all pillars of sustainability.
- Environmental: U.S. soybean farmers’ focus on continuous improvement makes them globally competitive. Farmers are innovating and adopting practices that reduce soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions while increasing energy use efficiency. Improvements in productivity have substantially reduced land impacts over time.
- Social: World populations depend on U.S. soybean farmers to nourish them. The checkoff supports global food security as a critical supplier of protein, oil and accompanying nutrients. At the same time, the checkoff works to find ways to maintain and improve soybean farmers’ social license by promoting the sustainability of soybeans to those outside of the industry.
- Economic: U.S. soybean farmers adopt technology to advance both their efficiency and environmental resilience, contributing to the profitability of their farm.
U.S. Soy Industry Goals
U.S. Soy is not only committed to, but actively targeting, goals where soybean farmers can make the biggest difference at the farm and through the value chain.
Groups representing U.S. soybean farmers—including the United Soybean Board (USB), the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) and the American Soybean Association (ASA)—have outlined sustainability goals for improvements on a key set of metrics. By 2025, U.S. soybean farmers aim to
- Reduce land use impact by 10%.
- Reduce soil erosion an additional 25%.
- Increase energy use efficiency by 10%.
- Reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 10%.
As of 2020, considerable progress has been made toward these goals, as measured by the Field to Market National Indicators Report:
- The land use goal was already exceeded in 2015; however, the industry continues to improve.
- We are about halfway to the soil erosion goal and have exceeded energy goals.
- For greenhouse gas emissions, marginal emissions per ton output have decreased, and the industry is still working toward the total impact goal.
U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol
U.S. soybean production is based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations combined with careful implementation of best production practices by soybean farmers. In addition, most U.S. soybean producers participate in certified and audited voluntary sustainability and conservation programs.
The checkoff-supported U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP) is an aggregate approach, audited by third parties, that verifies sustainable soybean production at a national scale. The SSAP describes the regulations, processes and management practices that ensure sustainable soybean production. The U.S. soybean producer sustainability program includes a national measurement system of positive environmental outcomes by producers.
Because U.S. soy is verified sustainable under the SSAP, it allows global customers to meet strict sustainability standards outlined by their companies or customers. The U.S. soy industry invests in sustainable agricultural research and education to support continuous improvement to meet industry sustainability goals. The SSAP verifies these ongoing efforts for international soybean buyers, when comparing to other origins, and ensures that purchasers have a competitive advantage when buying U.S. soy. For example, the SSAP has been positively benchmarked against the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation’s soy sourcing standards. And it was approved by the Tokyo Olympics Procurement Committee for soy sourcing at the 2021 Olympic Games.
A recent meta-analysis — the most comprehensive quality review of 18 studies and 1,944 samples of soybean meal from different origins that has ever been conducted – proves U.S. Soy is not only a higher quality ingredient but can also improve end-user profitability by delivering more nutrient value than that of soy from other origins.
In 2014, only 6,845 metric tons were shipped with a SSAP certificate. However, the adoption of the SSAP has grown exponentially since its inception with 65 U.S. exporters issuing SSAP certificates for 25.8 million metric tons of U.S. Soy in the 2021 marketing year, and cumulatively 100 million metric tons from 2014-21. USSEC’s reporting found 38% of U.S. soy exports are verified under the SSAP, making it the largest sustainability verification scheme in the world. In the North Asia and Europe regions, customers request a SSAP verified certificate for nearly 100% of their purchases.
- SSAP-RED: Specific to the EU market in delivering certified sustainably-grown soybeans that will positively impact its air quality, the SSAP-RED (Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol-Renewable Energy Directive) is a voluntary program developed by USSEC, with support from USB. This program meets the specific requirements of the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and sources SSAP-RED-verified soybeans as feedstock for the production of biodiesel.
- Sustainable U.S. Soy Mark: To bring the sustainability of U.S. soy front and center to domestic end-user marketing and sustainability teams, the Sustainable U.S. Soy Mark is based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations and farmer participation in the U.S. Farm Program. It seeks to increase demand for soybeans grown by U.S. farmers who commit to practices such as conservation tillage, cover crops and responsible nutrient management (e.g., right source, right rate, right time and right place). This mark applies to those soybean acres grown under best practices on-farm. Products carrying the mark contain soy ingredients that:
- Were grown in the United States.
- Are compliant with all U.S. environmental regulations.
- Protect highly erodible soils and wetlands.
- Were grown on family farms with responsible labor practices.
In January 2022, the sustainability mark will be available to food companies and will evolve to include third-party supply chain auditing.
Why the Checkoff Cares
Meeting customers’ sustainability needs with quality soy products and services is one of the soy checkoff’s top strategic objectives. Many major users of soy have made commitments to purchase all or a portion of their product ingredients from sustainable supplies. Soybean farmer commitments to continuous improvement by using new tools and management systems at the farm level demonstrates commitment to be part of the solution.
- Soybeans are planted in continuous rotation with corn and other crops, contributing to increased pest control and disease prevention. Soybeans replenish vital nutrients in the soil1. Soybean farmers use several conservation practices such as no-till, grass filter strips, cover crops, and drainage water management to manage one of their most precious resources — water.
- U.S. soybean farmers use GPS and monitors in their farming equipment to track yields and inputs. With that technology, they can change seeding and application rates down to square inches, ensuring that they put the right amount of seed, fertilizer and other inputs on the field. This helps farmers work most efficiently, minimizing inputs and costs while increasing nutrient use efficiencies.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found that yield mapping is used on about 40% of U.S. corn and soybean acres, GPS soil maps on about 30%, guidance on over 50%, and variable-rate technology (VRT) on 28-34% of acres, as of 2016. That number continues to grow as more farmers adopt precision agriculture technologies to farm more sustainably and efficiently.
- Climate change presents a clear challenge, but addressing it also offers farmers an opportunity to be part of the solution. In the U.S., agriculture emits less than 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gases.2 The soy checkoff invests in production research and techniques that continuously improve farm sustainability, including sustainable and regenerative practices spanning cover crop integration and no-till techniques. These soil health initiatives benefit the environment and soybean farmers’ bottom lines while also building more resilient farms, in addition to decreasing on-farm emissions.
- While innovation in seed technology, equipment design and precision planting strategies abound, the industry is also moving to aggregate measures of the beneficial effects of innovative soil management strategies. Healthy soil fights flooding and drought by more effectively allowing rainwater infiltration and gently releasing it to plants as they need it.3 Maintained soil often needs fewer inputs such as fertilizers and other treatments. USB is refining key partnerships to advance soil science as the U.S. soy industry strives to be a global leader on sustainability and soil health initiatives. USB funds research on soil health, including literature reviews and pilot projects related to soybean farming, to inform farmers on best practices and provide tools for management decisions.
- To increase farmer profitability, the soy checkoff invests in work to improve sustainability and deliver a better soybean to meet end-user needs. The soy checkoff and Qualified State Soybean Boards work together to find solutions, best practices, and data on key issues farmers face. They make their findings available to academic institutions, farmers, and companies to help move the industry forward. Some recently completed production research projects focused on the soybean include:
- Deconstructing Off-Target Movement of Auxin Herbicides (USB)
- Development of a Rapid Monitoring and Testing Strategy for Early Detection of Glufosinate-Resistant Palmer Amaranth in Soybean Fields (North Carolina Soybean Producers Association)
- Investigating Dicamba and 2,4-D Herbicide Off-Target Movement (Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, USB)
- Non-transgenic generation of herbicide resistance in soybean using CRISPR base editing (NCSRP)
- Breeding Soybeans for Resistance to Mature Soybean Seed Damage (joint funding USB, Mid-South Soybean Board)
- Discovery of Trait Genes, Alleles, Germplasm and Functional Markers for Soybean Seed Quality Improvement through a Highly Effective Big-Data Driven Technology Platform (USB)
- Influence of Phosphorus and Potassium Applications in a Multi-Year Spring Wheat-Soybean Crop Rotation (Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council)
Pests and Diseases
- Asian Soybean Rust Monitoring System (South Carolina Soybean Board)
- Determination of Phytophthora sojae Populations and Assessment of Management Strategies (Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee)
- Discovery of Novel Genes and Development of Soybeans with Durable Resistance to Multiple Nematodes (USB)
- Enhanced Pest Control Systems for Mid-South Soybean Production (joint funding USB, Mid-South Soybean Board)
- Molecular Characterization and Identification of the New Root-lesion Nematode Species on Soybean in North Dakota (North Dakota Soybean Council)
- Novel Resistance to Cercospora Leaf Blight and Purple Seed Stain of Soybean (Maryland Soybean Board)
- Potential use of Cover Crops and Green Manures for Localized or Widespread Management of Fusarium Diseases, White Mold and Iron Deficiency Chlorosis on Soybean (Iowa Soybean Association)
- Biodiesel made from soybeans is a clean-burning, renewable fuel source. And it’s making up an ever-increasing percentage of the U.S. fuel supply. Biodiesel made from soybean oil reduces life cycle greenhouse gases by 86% compared to petroleum, according to the National Biodiesel Board. It is the most efficient of any U.S. fuel — for every unit of fossil energy it takes to produce biodiesel, about 3.5 units of renewable energy are returned.4 Plus, no additional soybeans need to be grown to produce biodiesel. The oil used to make biodiesel is a byproduct of the soy processing that already occurs.
- USB, the National Pork Board and the National Corn Growers Association are developing a blueprint addressing sustainable feed for swine diets, meeting end-user sustainability expectations. The goal is to create a carbon neutral pig for Walmart by 2035.
- Soy ingredients are increasingly used in industrial lubricants, adhesives, and petrochemical replacements, as a more environmental-friendly alternative to fossil fuel-based or petroleum products and, in the case of adhesives, replacing chemicals like formaldehyde with soy as a sustainable solution. Progress is also being made to develop soy-based plastics. See more on soynewuses.org.
- The soy checkoff helps prepare U.S. soy farmers for up-and-coming procurement trends and to contribute to international sustainability goals in meaningful ways. More and more Multinational food companies are interested in aligning with 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (U.N. SDGs).
- In 2020, to understand U.S. Soy’s place and potential to contribute to the U.N. SDGs, in-depth stakeholder research mapped the SDGs to U.S. Soy priorities. The mapping process identified that focus 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.
- Beyond Goal 2: Zero Hunger, U.S. Soy has mapped to SDGs 6, 12, 13, 15 and 17. By completing the mapping exercise, rather than just aligning, it shows soy is really committed to the SDGs. All that apply include: Goal 2: Zero Hunger, Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, Goal 13: Climate Action, Goal 15: Life on Land and Goal 17: Partnership.
Facts & Figures
Field to Market, a multi-stakeholder sustainable agriculture collaborative, measures agricultural sustainability by how efficient the industry is in five key metrics. The most recent report shows U.S. farmers grow 46% more soybeans now than they did 30 years ago, while also making these per bushel improvements from 1980 to 2015:5
- Soil conservation improved 47%.
- Energy use decreased 35%.
- Greenhouse gas emissions improved by 45%, reduced from 13.6 pounds carbon dioxide-equivalent gas per bushel in 1980 to 7.5 pounds CO2-equivalent gas per bushel in 2015.
Similarly, according to a study of farmers conducted by the soy checkoff in 2018:
- Nearly 60% of farmers said they have changed their production practices to increase the sustainability of their operation.
- 32% of farmers said improving soil health is the most important thing for U.S. soybean farmers to do to maintain and increase the sustainability of soybeans.6
Practices that maintain and improve soil fertility are vital to long-term productive crop rotations. U.S. Department of Agriculture data reported conservation tillage was used on 70% of soybean acres and no-till accounted for 40% of total acreage in soybeans.7
Farmers plant approximately 94% of U.S. soybean acreage with seed enhanced by biotechnology, according to the USDA. These crops make weed control more effective and less costly. Because of biotechnology, U.S. soybean farmers can reduce reliance on tillage for weed control, increasing conservation tillage and reducing the number of trips through the field. These measures lead to sustainable results such as reduced fuel use, fewer emissions, less soil compaction and less soil and water runoff.