The Whole Bean: How U.S. Soy Helps Feed and Fuel the World

The tiny, unassuming soybean is a mighty force, providing protein, oil and fiber that powers our planet and people in multiple sustainable ways. Once a crop is grown primarily for animal feed, the list of potential known uses of soybeans has only grown. 

Today, U.S. Soy is critical not only to the global food economy but also for making renewable biomass-based diesel fuel more accessible and providing more sustainable alternatives for hundreds of products, from enhancing personal care products and textiles, to greener options for the materials that move and house us, like tires, plywood, plastics and paint.

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The world will need more U.S. Soy to meet growing market demands for food, fuel and more. The magnitude of this challenge naturally prompts the question, “Can we feed the world and protect the environment?” The answer is yes. Feeding the world and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. U.S. Soy farmers do both, season after season, using carbon sequestering practices while producing a crop that feeds people and enables protein production around the world.  

While some have suggested we’ll need more farmland and additional natural resources to meet increased demand for U.S. Soy, that’s simply not the case. The versatility of the whole soybean – along with on-farm practices and innovations that maximize farmers’ ability to produce more with less environmental impact – ensure U.S. Soy will reliably meet growing demands for food, fuel and more, now and into the future.

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Here’s how: 

Soy offers unmatched versatility. The whole soybean is so versatile that when biodiesel is made with the oil portion, 80% of the bean remains as a meal, or protein, available to nourish people and animals.  

While biomass-based diesel is a growing source of demand, the food chain remains the most important use of soy. Take this example: In 2022, the average U.S. soybean yield was nearly 50 bushels per acre, according to the USDA. This is equivalent to 3,000 pounds of soybeans, providing 570 pounds of soybean oil and 2,350 pounds of protein. That’s enough oil and protein to produce:  

  • Over 50 gallons of renewable diesel fuel – enough fuel for the average semitruck to travel from New York City to Pittsburgh  
  • Enough edible vegetable oil to meet two people’s average annual oil consumption 
  • Feed for chickens that produce 800 pounds of broiler meat – enough to meet 10 people’s average annual chicken consumption
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Crop yields continue to increase. Through advancements in seed technology and improvements in farming and production practices, U.S. soybean production has more than doubled over the past 40 years while overall row crop land area has declined, according to the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. This trend is expected to continue, with U.S. soybean yields predicted to keep growing by over half a bushel per acre per year while row crop land area remains steady or decreases.  

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Farmers are focused on reducing environmental impact. As yields grow, U.S. farmers are driving more sustainable farming methods – including precision agriculture, use of cover crops and reduced tillage. In fact, according to Field to Market’s 2021 National Indicators Report, U.S. Soy farmers have the second lowest cultivation impact in the world, improving production by 130% between 1980 and 2020 while also driving efficiencies in land, water and energy use, reducing emissions and expanding soil conservation.  

Further, by scaling sustainable and regenerative farming practices that sequester carbon, soy and other crops have the potential to store around 5 gigatons of carbon per year in the soil, based on a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters. That’s equivalent to the GHG emissions from more than 4 billion gas-powered cars driven for one year, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

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Renewable fuels use can actually help decrease food costs. Increased use of biomass-based diesel has a positive impact on food security. By helping farmers maintain value for all components of the soybean, not just the meal (the protein inside the bean), producing sustainable fuels help stabilize or even reduce soybean meal prices, maintaining value and appeal for soy food and soy feed production. 

According to recent research from Purdue University, increased use of soybean oil for biomass-based diesel has almost no net impact on food price inflation. In fact, the savings from lower soybean protein prices are passed along to consumers, contributing to lower retail prices for eggs, chicken and pork.

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Innovation is driving continued growth. U.S. Soy constantly innovates and collaborates with U.S. farmers and industry partners to drive growth to meet food and fuel demands – from more sustainable production methods, to research on creating a soybean that can withstand drought, to continuous ideation on soy-based products with lower carbon footprints. 

As demand fluctuates across food, feed and fuel markets, U.S. Soy remains a significant and critical part of the solution, using sustainable practices, partnerships and innovation to maintain its supply for uses that nourish people and preserve the planet.

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The future for U.S. Soy is bright. This versatile bean continues to play a key role in helping us nourish the world’s growing population while providing solutions that enable our journey toward a carbon-free future. 

Originally shared by Mac Marshall, VP of Market Intelligence at the United Soybean Board on LinkedIn, June 8, 2023.

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