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U.S. Soybean Production Supports Carbon-Neutral Goals

By Laura Temple

In response to consumer demand, companies of all sizes and across all industries, from local shops to global manufacturers, actively set goals to reduce their carbon footprints. As these companies seek to be part of climate solutions, they find ways to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, from direct activities to supply chains.

And soybean production can be part of those efforts, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to furthering soil health and increasing carbon-storing capacity of fields. At times, practices used in raising soybeans offers solutions to forge ahead on all three.

To offset some of carbon-dioxide-generating activities, many of these companies choose to invest in carbon credits.1 As the carbon market develops, U.S. Soy farmers can offer those credits for some of the practices they incorporate into their farms that allows those soils to store even more organic carbon.

“As global corporations commit to carbon neutrality, soybean farmers are positioned to help,” says Jack Cornell, director of sustainable supply for the United Soybean Board. “U.S. Soy has the lowest carbon footprint compared to soy of other origins, but that isn’t all the industry offers.

“Nature-based solutions to sequestering carbon, like using plants, appeal to many of those companies,” he continues. “Because of this, demand for carbon credits derived from agriculture tends to be higher than the global average.2

Cornell explains that soils serve as a primary organic carbon pool. Research has shown that agricultural practices that minimize soil disturbance and increase organic matter content in soils can increase soil organic carbon.3 This additional carbon storage can offset carbon dioxide release from other activities.

“Carbon markets typically include some form of scientific verification that additional carbon is being stored, offsetting other activities,” he adds.


Carbon-Storing Agricultural Practices

“In many regions of the U.S., soybeans respond well to those management practices,” Cornell continues. “At the same time, these sustainable practices help U.S. Soy farmers protect and improve soil health, which can translate to reliable crop yields.”

Such practices include conservation tillage or no-till, which minimizes or eliminates disturbance of the soil surface as the crop is planted and nurtured. Less-disturbed soils retain, or sequester, more carbon. They also better support below-ground organisms like earthworms, which impact soil characteristics like increasing nutrient availability to plants and providing better drainage, helping crop production. U.S. Soy farmers have adopted these practices on roughly two-thirds of the acres that often include soybeans in the crop rotation.4

Soils experiencing less surface disturbance tend to better retain and break down crop residue from previous crops, another way to increase organic matter content — and by extension soil carbon.3

Diverse crop rotations also support increases in organic carbon.3 Soybeans thrive in a variety of crop rotations, from the soybean-corn system used in much of the U.S. Midwest to more complex rotations that include small grains like wheat or rice, cotton, vegetable crops and more.

Planting cover crops also fits well into soybean production and increases soil organic matter. Typically planted around harvest, cover crops like species of rye, wheat, clover or forage radish sprout and grow in the fall as long as weather conditions allow. Depending on the climate and temperatures, the plants go dormant during the winter. Some cover crops naturally die over the winter. Others grow again in the spring until they are terminated to make way for the next primary crop. Cover crops cover the ground and produce roots that limit soil erosion, while allowing soils to maintain actively growing plants for longer periods of time to hold more carbon. Currently, about 6% of U.S. farmland uses cover crops,5 but adoption is growing rapidly.  

“Cover crops provide many long-term soil health benefits,” Cornell says. “Demand for carbon credits is just another of the many factors encouraging adoption of cover crops.”

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