Photo: Brock Johnston/Iowa Soybean Association

Left to right: Polly Ruhland, chief executive officer of USB; Doug Winter, Illinois farmer, director and chair of USB, and chair of USSEC and the U.S. Soybean Council; Ed Anderson, PhD, senior director of research at ISA, and executive director of the North Central Soybean Research Program; Gena Perry, executive director of WISHH; and Jim Sutter, chief executive officer of USSEC. (Photo: Brock Johnston/Iowa Soybean Association)

Soybean farmers committed to feeding a fragile world

October 20, 2022 | Brock Johnston

Soybean farmers know that sustainably nourishing our world starts at home, with practices that protect and enhance valuable natural resources and provide opportunities for increased productivity and profitability. Finding new ways to sustainably grow more with less resources isn’t easy, but is important to the operations, families and communities of soybean farmers.

Panelists discussed this commitment during a conversation on expanding consumer access to high-quality protein and the future of soy produced with climate-forward solutions at the Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa. Speakers included:

  • Ed Anderson, PhD, senior director of research at the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), and executive director of the North Central Soybean Research Program;
  • Doug Winter, farmer from Mill Shoals, Illinois, director and chair of the United Soybean Board (USB), and chair of the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) and U.S. Soybean Council;
  • Gena Perry, executive director of the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH); and
  • Jim Sutter, chief executive officer of USSEC.

The panel was moderated by Polly Ruhland, chief executive officer of USB.

“We are laser focused on food security for the world,” said Ruhland. “Providing nutritious and healthy protein for the world – be that in the form of plant protein or animal protein – and pride ourselves on farmer investments to nourish both resources and people.”

*Editor’s note: Panelists’ answers were shortened for clarity and brevity.

Ruhland: “We know that sustainability, planetary resilience and feeding people begins on the farm. When we think about conservation practices that are critical to these goals, talk a little about your farm in relationship to how you support natural resources.”

Winter: “With great resources comes great responsibility. American farmers feel a sense of duty over the blessings we’ve been endowed with – from water to productive soils. Many conservation practices try to stabilize and improve what we have. We use a number of different practices like conservation tillage, including no-till and mulch-till. This has been especially helpful with conserving water during the growing season and provides support during adverse [weather] conditions we see around the U.S. and the world. Making less passes through the field requires less fuel usage as well.

“After tracking fuel usage in machinery over the last 10 years, we’ve found the fuel efficiency – primarily diesel fuel – today is about 15% to 20% better than what it was a decade ago. This lowers our greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to air quality improvement. Everything we operate runs using a biofuel, either biodiesel or ethanol blend of gasoline.

“New technology helps us in our pesticide efficiency as well. We’re incorporating more crop scouting, drones and infrared satellite technology in our operation to be more prescriptive. With the rising costs of inputs, we use more economic threshold determination to find out if the pest, weed, or insect presence is high enough to harm crop yield enough to return and use a pesticide.”

Ruhland: “When talking on-farm technologies to improve efficiency and protect the planet, what are your thoughts on innovation in technology, the importance of research and what it allows us to do?”

Anderson: “Research is a big word with a huge set of background types. One fits under the category of market research. We listen to farmers, end users and everyone up and down the value chain to understand where basic and applied research can fit best to provide the solutions and innovations that continuously improve what others are doing. In terms of opportunities, the areas of research we hear about most are directed at ensuring our farmers are producing the highest quality, highest yielding, most nutritious soybeans and soybean products in the most sustainable way.

“If you think about research (e.g., genetics, biotechnology, engineering, computer science) all of these things can come together to help U.S. farmers be better at sustainable production and use of resources. Specifically, we’re very interested in technology (e.g., chemical, biochemical, biological, artificial intelligence) that help farmers be as precise and prescriptive with inputs as possible. We’re also interested in planting the best genetics that provide the most high-quality feed for whatever market they are feeding – livestock, aquaculture, pets and more. On the food side, we’re trying to connect the end users and the customers at the end of value chain with the farmers and researchers upstream who can provide tweaks biologically, biotechnologically and genetically through breeding programs.

“Our farmers and our researchers have a shared passion for what the end use will be of the soybeans coming off any given acre, where those markets are, and how to provide for those needs. Research spans a big space, but we always try to understand where the needs and opportunities are of farmers today. This includes farmers who are leading these areas, as well as farmers who have opportunities to learn more and continuously improve their programs.”

Ruhland: “The fragility of human populations is something we’re always considering in the soy community. Thinking about the enormous task of providing accessible protein for the world, where do you start? How do we ensure appropriate technologies and availability of protein are shared?”

Perry: “The U.S. soy industry is unique in that they recognize there’s a need to invest in developing and emerging markets both for long term trade opportunities for U.S. soy and to help improve global food security. In the 28 markets WISHH works across sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia, there’s a lot of global food security challenges. On top of that, you have challenges related to infrastructure, conflict and political changes that change policy overnight. There’s a lot at play in the work WISHH does.

“WISHH is unique because we work at the intersection of development and trade. We’re laying that groundwork, but also developing market sectors to be long-term trade partners for collaboration with USSEC down the road to expand commercial operations and import more U.S. soy.

“In many of these countries, there’s also a protein gap in addition to food insecurity. This means there’s higher protein demand than what’s being produced locally. WISHH works across the value chain, whether it be poultry, aquaculture or food companies, to provide accessible and affordable protein. This could be through fish, eggs, chicken, soy-isolates in beverages, soy flour, etc. We work with our strategic partners and entrepreneurs by directly asking what technical assistance WISHH can provide. This could be helping them learn how to better maintain field equipment, or how to feed fish more high-quality diets.

“People tend to think technical training means a massive shift in technology. Often times, it’s small shifts that make a big difference in these developing and emerging markets. We work with aquaculture and poultry producers to improve their feed with high-quality, soy-based feed. Realizing the economics can be challenging in some markets, we help producers see the long-term benefits and provide resources to finances. Through feeding demonstrations, we can also show that investing more upfront can actually get a fish or bird to market quicker, meaning they spend less on feed overall all while providing a high-quality protein in animal diets.”

Ruhland: “We’re seeing sustainability is an increasing factor among purchasing decisions of food and feed in developed countries. Could you talk a little bit about food security in a sustainable way for the developed world and the role of U.S. soy in that?”

Sutter: “To sustainability, or food/nutrition security, when you talk about those two things, I think it’s a little like the chicken and the egg. Which one really comes first? Of course, countries want nutrition security. In order to do that, it needs to be sustainable. Admittedly, ‘sustainable’ may be an overused word, but it can certainly mean something that you can keep going for a long time. So, if you want to have food/nutrition security, you want to be able to do that in a sustainable way.

“With regard to the work of USSEC in reaching out to 80+ countries to help them better connect with markets, trade is a critical component of that nutrition security in a sustainable way. The more that people who are importing goods into a country can require the good was produced in a sustainable way, the more we can deal with the climate issue. People want nutrition security in their countries and they want to ensure that’s being done in a sustainable way. Trade is a component they use in order to get those raw materials into their country. These pieces fit together very well.

“I think the U.S. soy industry, with the investments that farmers have made over the years, have really helped demonstrate this to people around the world.”

Ruhland: There’s a perception among some that sustainability has three legs – people, planet and profit and farmers only care about the last part. How do you make decisions on the farm that balance each of these three things?

Ruhland: “The thing about farming is that profit is dependent on the other two elements. You can’t be profitable without balancing the economics of a situation with the planetary and people impacts.”

Winter: “You have to look at all facets and how they interact with each other on a farming operation. Whether it’s purchase of equipment or your marketing plan for profitability. One of the first and foremost things farmers look at is the quality of the product we’re producing and asking, ‘does this product satisfy our customer’s profile needs – whether its domestically or internationally. How does this impact food supply for people in other countries who are buying our product?’ And making sure the product is commensurate with the goals and needs they have.

“Everything is a cause-and-effect relationship, so we’re looking at how to best balance in order to produce more with fewer resources. We do a deep-dive analysis into what our balance is. How can we survive in our occupation, but also feed the world with a nutritious food supply?”

Anderson: “This goes beyond just looking at an economic piece because farmers are first and foremost business people. They have to make a profit and ensure their business is going to be successful for the short and long term – we’re sensitive to that and respect that. We try to enable them to be profitable, so that they consider the other things that make them sustainable and produce the types of quality product that bring value beyond just their own profit. It’s these pieces coming together that allow for constant new development, technologies and opportunities in agriculture that help us realize some of the things we only dreamed about 30 years ago.”

Future of soy

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this year’s dialogue is actually a longstanding one—spoken decades before the world of agriculture we know today by famed American agronomist Dr. Norman Borlaug.

“There are no miracles in agricultural production.”

A product of Iowa, Borlaug was the recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts around the world that have contributed to the significant advancements of agricultural production today. He is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.

While there will never be an agricultural “miracle” to support our growing population, soybean farmers are proof that the legacy of feeding the world lives on.