For years, sustainability was not much more than a buzzword in agricultural circles. The term was difficult to define, and most farmers couldn’t figure out how to make the concept work financially for themselves.
That view is changing because more growers are thinking it’s the right thing to do and because the economics are beginning to line up, according to Abby Rinne, director of sustainability for the U.S. Soybean Export Council.
Rinne, a speaker for the recent Soybean Agricultural Sustainability Virtual Field Trip conducted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said more foreign importers are asking that the soybeans they buy from U.S. growers be produced sustainably. (To watch the VFT, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JdS1EIQTU4.)
Currently, 60% of U.S. soybeans are exported to other countries. The USSEC, which was created in 2005 and has 104 exporter and allied industry members, works to “differentiate and create a preference for U.S. soybeans”, says Rinne.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, discussion about sustainability and sustainable sourcing was starting in Europe,” she noted. “Since then, we have seen sustainability become a point of discussion in nearly every market around the world, and it’s become a sourcing requirement for many brands.
“We have been paying close attention to try to understand what the issues are and how the U.S. soy industry can help solve problems and meet requirements. While attempting to answer questions from supply chains, we recognized the need to formalize our responses.”
The tool the industry developed was the U S Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol or SSAP. The program catalogs the legal requirements farmers who participate in the U S farm program must meet, the state and local laws and the voluntary efforts made at the farm level.
“The SSAP looks at U S soybean production in aggregate based on the level of participation in the U S farm program and the compliance rate from audits,” said Rinne. “It's important to note that every farmer participating in the U S farm program provides certifications of compliance each year, are all subject to audit, and there are about 20,000 audits conducted annually.
“So based on U.S. soybean production, the farmer participation rate in the U.S. farm program and the audit compliance rate, the amount of sustainable U.S. soy is calculated. And from that there's the ability for exporters to provide certificates, verifying the soybeans purchased meets the SSAP.”
Rinne said an important aspect to SSAP – similar to U.S. agriculture – is “the fact that we recognize sustainability is all about continuous improvement; we must continue to find new ways to reduce our impact on the environment; and at the same time remain economically viable and positively contributing to society’s needs.”
Four directives of the SSAP
-- Biodiversity and high carbon stock. “These are the regulatory obligations to maintain wetlands, grasslands, forests, and enhanced biodiversity production practices,” she said.
-- Production practices. “This includes those that enhance the environment as well as those that protect our natural resources while increasing production efficiency, public and labor, health, and welfare.”
-- Public and Labor, Health and Welfare. “We have a number of regulations and laws that provide for the protection of the public and workers. So this is where we cover things like fair labor standards, equal employment opportunity, abolition of forced labor and clean water act laws.”
-- Continuous improvement. “Sustainability is not a result. It is a process each year. Farmers work harder to be more efficient and environmentally sound. Along those lines, we have established some continuous improvement goals.”
She said several key metrics help convey the story of U.S. soy sustainability.
U.S. soybean farmers have reduced tillage operations by 70% in recent years; improved nutrient management by 92%; improved water management by 94%; conservation by 10%; crop rotation by 94%; pest management by 95% and detailed recordkeeping by 95%.
“You can see there have been continuous gains made by the soybean industry in the U S every five-year period,” she said, referring to a slide produced from the Field to Market National Indicators Report.
“There was improvement with the exception of the five-year period from 2011 to 2015 related to irrigation water use. There are a number of factors at play related to your irrigation water use. One is the 2012 drought in which there was more irrigation use than normal.”
Field to Market indicators
The Field to Market National Indicators report is released every five years. “We expect the 2020 version to be released in late fall of this year, which will provide us an update of how we are tracking, and we expect to see the same trends continuing.”
Based on the year 2000 Field to Market benchmark, U.S. soybean producers should be able to achieve continuous improvement goals set for the SSAP. In the next five years, for example, farmers should be able to increase yield by another 10% by improving the adoption of narrow rows and the use of cover crops.
Growers should also be able to reduce soil erosion an additional 2% by increasing adoption of no-till conservation tillage, narrow rows, and cover crops and increase energy use efficiency, a direct economic savings, by 10% by increasing adoption of no till and conservation tillage practices, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10%.
“We need to focus our limited resources in research outreach and measurements to make certain we are achieving our targeted goals. This is what sustainability is. It's all about continuous improvement.”