According to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, the global population is projected to increase to 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Population growth and expansion lead to a greater increase in global food demand and diversification of consumption patterns. All these factors need concerted efforts to increase food production.
Soybean (Glycine max) is a crop calculated to contribute greatly to the increasing global food demands. The U.S. remains the highest contributor in metric tons, contributing up to 33% of the total global soybean production. With the global production scale projected to rise to 371.3 million metric tons by 2030, it is necessary to do it with less biotic and abiotic stress.
Sustainable Soybean Production in the U.S.
The U.S. soybean farmers and producers have registered great efforts in leveraging technology in soy production to try to produce protein-rich soybean, focusing on enhancing a sustainable future. The farmers have a great work to balance between feeding the hungry world and conservation by producing this highly needed protein-rich legume most sustainably.
Here are some of the ways soybean production in the U.S. remains sustainable:
Crop rotation is a subtle agricultural technique that significantly contributes to farming by sustaining soil fertility and controlling pests and pathogens. In addition, crop rotation enhances the formation of some beneficial soil microbes, which greatly increases the yielding of subsequent crops, especially when succeeded by legumes like soybean.
U.S. soybean producers are keen on crop rotation to enhance soybean production and other crops, which are crucial for the food industry. Approximately 94% of U.S. soybean hectares are subjected to continuous rotation planting. Soybean is chiefly alternated with corn and wheat in the North and, at times, with cotton in the South. In efforts to achieve double cropping in one year, the farmers of the southern U.S. sow wheat in land previously used for soybean production before the winter begins. Crop rotation contributes considerably to biodiversity and a rich soil containing adequate nutrient capacity.
1. Reduced Tillage
Land tillage has a great contribution to the environment and soil sustainability. The U.S. soybean producers take deliberate steps to reduce land tillage to enhance their sustainable agriculture. Conservation tillage practices are used on about 70% of all hectares used to grow soybeans in the U.S. These conservation efforts, sometimes become so strict as to include no-till, are in place. Practices aimed at reducing tillage lead to carbon build-up, which significantly boosts organic matter in soil and refines water drainage and accessibility by crops. As a result, reduced tillage enhances food production at reduced stress to the soil.
2. Cover Crops
The importance of cover crops in preserving the soil cannot be echoed enough. They help control erosion (especially drip erosion) and preserve soil quality. U.S. soybean farmers employ cover crops like turnips left to rot in the soil, protecting and enriching the soil simultaneously.
While typical cover crops are planted specifically to cover soil rather than be harvested, soy can serve as a subtle cover crop and provide rich beans. Soybean grows to form canopies which reduce the impact of the rainwater on the soil and the destructive effects of insects.
3. Sustainable Pest and Disease Management
Pests and Diseases are some of the keen challenges that soy farmers have to deal with. Soybeans are affected by such pests as grasshoppers stink bugs, and bean-leaf beetles (BLBs). While BLBs threaten the soybean plants throughout their lifespan, stink bugs and grasshoppers come later when they are maturing. While the farmers need to control these bugs, they need to do so while preserving the air and water from the potential pollutants resulting from typical pesticide use. The farmers make a huge difference for crops and the environment by employing integrated pest management strategies.
Apart from pests and diseases, soybeans are also faced with numerous diseases all through their growth cycle. Soybean disease includes Downy mildew, White mold, Bacterial blight, Stem canker, and Charcoal rot. Instead of chemical-intensive methods like fungicides, Soybean farmers prioritize environmentally friendly techniques such as crop rotation, seed treatment, deep tillage, and growing resistant cultivars.
4. Water Management
Water is a vital natural resource that must be preserved and protected from pollution. The U.S. soybean farmers contribute to sustainable agriculture through water management. It is worth noting that only 8% of U.S. agricultural land is irrigated for soybean production. Soy is not a heavy user of water like other crops. Furthermore, soybean farmers prop up the creation of watersheds to see an effective and equitable allocation of water resources.
5. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emission (GHG)
Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is one the greatest contribution of soybeans in sustainability, yet not spoken of enough. Global warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), et cetera. Legumes like soybean reduce GHG emissions in farming systems by downgrading mineral N fertilization, isolation of carbon in soils, and the comprehensive fossil energy inputs in the ecosystem.
Nitrous oxide is more active than Carbon dioxide( which represents about 6% of total atmospheric gases). Major emissions of Nitrous oxide (about 60%) are contributed by certain agricultural practices, mainly the application of nitrogenous fertilizers. It is estimated that about 1000 grams of N are emitted as Nitrous oxide from every 100 Kilograms of N fertilizers used. Otherwise, it is important to note that several factors, including N application rate, soil organic C content, soil pH, and texture, influence the amount of N2O emission.
Multitudinous studies have given useful insights into the debate about legumes and the reduction in the rate of GHG emissions. Most of these studies favor legumes to have a positive contribution to sustainability. Generally, it is reported that legumes discharge around 5–7 times less GHG per unit area compared with other crops, making them better options for sustainability.
As well, using plant-based proteins will reduce the emission of GHG. Soybean has a 25 times smaller carbon footprint than beef. Beef produces approximately 50 kg of CO2 per 100 grams of protein, while soy only emits 2 kg.
Soybean is an important legume for sustainability in terms of conservation of the environment as well as food security. American producers apply various techniques in the production of this precious legume in a sustainable manner. Applying such techniques as crop rotation, reduced tillage, cover crops, and sustainable solutions to pests and diseases is a great step to grow and develop soybean sustainably.