Ongoing talk about sustainability ranges from climate change to “saving the planet” by reusing hotel towels, but a grounded view from an industry that touches everyone is often absent from the media discussion.
It seems like America’s farmers are usually in the sustainability discussion only when dragged there — most often by a well-fed spokesperson who complains about “factory farming” or a Berkeley journalism school professor on a book tour spotlighting food system faults. But Illinois farmers have a genuine and encouraging sustainability story. And ours is based on decades, if not centuries, of progress taking care of our land, our animals and our communities. And our story is also about how we are meeting future challenges.
During the last 30 years, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other data show Illinois soybean farmers have decreased per-bushel greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent. Energy use is down 21 percent per bushel. We’ve reduced soil erosion by 20 percent, and we’re using 8 percent less land per bushel. The surprising outcome isn’t just the environmental gains; it’s also that we’ve increased production by about 50 percent while decreasing our footprint. That’s a record few other industries can match.
These data are timely because more people want to know how their food is produced, and more businesses who buy our soybeans are asking farmers to “certify” our sustainability practices.
While those past successes are considerable, we can’t stand still. New pressures are appearing in our overseas markets that make past environmental challenges look easy compared to future ones. About 50 percent of Illinois soybeans stay in the United States, where they are crushed into protein-rich meals to feed livestock. Some of the soybean oil left over from the crushed soybeans goes into familiar foods like salad dressing. Each acre of soybeans can produce 70 gallons of renewable biodiesel, without impacting the food supply. Only a few of our beans make it into soy milk. The other 50 percent of our soybeans are exported to China to feed hogs, poultry and fish. That’s where the future brings new challenges.
Many people think population growth puts pressure on food production and farm sustainability. However, population growth drives only a fraction of China’s food demand. According to the United Nations, China’s 0.84 percent population growth rate is less than one-half of ours. The sustainability challenge is because of a preference for better food, more than a demand for more food.
As Asian incomes increase, diets shift from grains to meat. Because soybeans are an excellent livestock feed, China’s demand for soybeans has skyrocketed from about 20 million metric tons (MMT) in 2000, to more than 60 MMT in 2012, according to the USDA. The effects are astonishing. China’s 15 million metric ton growth in pork production since 2000 is more than half of the entire production of the European Union. The country’s 51.6 MMT pork production is nearly half of global production.
Here’s how those trends reach back to farming Illinois soybean fields sustainably: China has about one-fifth of an acre of arable land per person. The U.S. has about 1.7 acres per person. The numbers on water available for farming are similar. As populations grow and diets shift, land and water available for farming get more limiting.
When farmers kept up with population growth in the past 150 years, new land, technology and energy for agriculture were abundant. Acres or water per person were not limiting. Today, increasing yields and environmental efficiency are the best hope we have for making the most of our limited natural resources.
Our biggest sustainability concerns these days are continuing our progress, which requires adopting new practices like cover crops or precision farming, and having better seed and improved technology. We also need to remain free to farm without being told how to farm by people who don’t farm.
Illinois soybean farmers have taken sustainability seriously for decades before the topic became popular with marketers, policy makers and grocery shoppers. For us it’s always meant taking care of our land, our communities and our bottom lines. There is a lot riding on our success.
The most important story about sustainable farming has yet to be told. Doing the best job we can is how we make sure the sustainability story our grandkids tell is even better than the one we’re telling them today.
Sharon Covert is a district director for the Illinois Soybean Association and serves on the ISA Marketing Committee. She is a past Illinois Director on the United Soybean Board, and has served in various leadership roles for the U.S. Soybean Export Council and a number of other farm groups. She is from Tiskilwa, farms with her husband, James, and has three children and 10 grandchildren.