Sustainability and innovation are at the root of the United Soybean Board’s work of caring for American farmers and the land they cherish
If you have the pleasure of sitting next to Polly Ruhland on your next flight, please ask her about soybeans. We promise you’ll have an engaging and fascinating conversation, and you’ll come away appreciative of the incredible — and largely unsung — work of the United Soybean Board (USB). This organization administers the national soybean checkoff investments of the 515,000 U.S. soybean farmers that it represents. As the organization’s CEO, she helps its 78 board members, all of whom are farmers across 30+ states, create new market opportunities and lasting success for America’s soybean growers.
Soy is an essential protein for human brain development and overall health, and it is becoming central to a host of diverse uses: Conventional soybean oil makes rubber tires hold the road better; high oleic soybean oil in asphalt makes it possible to recycle and reuse that road surface effectively; soy is the foundation for biodiesel, the only advanced biofuel that is commercially available – largely due to USB’s efforts. You’ll find soy in industrial lubricants, paint, carpeting, adhesives, and in foam seating, just for starters. A great many of these innovations were developed in concert with the USB, which is 100% farmer-funded.
Breaking New Ground
When it comes to industrial uses of soy, Ruhland told BOSS, “We are a catalyst for the market. We like to invent in new things and to launch new products, then let the private sector and the free market take over the marketing and sales of those innovations.”
“Our main mission is to create partnerships that increase the value and preference for U.S. soy,” she said. “Those partnerships act as catalysts to launch new products and soy innovations into the marketplace. That's how we increase profit opportunities for soybean farmers. By being the rising tide that floats all throughout the value chain, we strongly believe that we help all farmers. Our innovation partnership allows us to maintain a dynamic market for soybeans and all their components across the supply chain.”
But U.S. Soy plays another critical role beyond human health and sustainable biobased products. Most demand for U.S. soybeans is driven through their use as feed for poultry, fish, and livestock.
USB fosters collaboration and innovation in animal nutrition and health through its Animal Nutrition Working Group, which brings together end users (e.g. animal nutritionists at Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, ADM Animal Nutrition), farmers and processors to ensure U.S. soybean meal delivers the quality to improve animal nutrition, productivity, health, and sustainability outcomes.
The reach of USB goes beyond all domestic soybean uses, however. Investments made in the soy checkoff also target improving existing international markets as well as identifying new ones. “Last year we made tremendous progress in developing new international markets for our domestic soybeans. Some good examples are India and Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. We are developing U.S. Soy Excellence Centers in some of these countries, and these newly developed centers will play an important part in our efforts to expand and diversify our international portfolio,” she noted. “Exploring this opportunity was driven by the trade uncertainties that we experienced. We’re always looking to find the silver lining in the challenges that we face.”
Innovation for More Stable Societies
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 7.47 billion people on the planet, and as that number is projected to surpass 9 billion people by 2050, more ways to feed them the vital proteins they need will be required. To meet protein demand, the world’s population will need an additional 3 billion bushels a decade — and making sure there are enough resources to fill that need is a critical concern Over the past 18 years, global soybean production has more than doubled, from 5.9 billion to 12.9 billion bushels.
“But despite soy’s production advances, we need every form of U.S. protein that’s out there, including animal protein, and other plant proteins to meet global nutrition needs,” shared Ruhland. And that is exactly why USB is pursuing a strategy it calls “Protein First,” a noncompetitive initiative to harness the productive power of all U.S. protein sources to nourish a growing world. “I believe this Protein First approach not only meets the future demand of protein, but it also helps us preserve our planet for the next generation.”
Soy farmers strive to feed a growing population in a sustainable way. As planetary stewards by their very nature, farmers are the leading edge when it comes to land innovations. “We’re constantly researching new ways for farmers to become more sustainable, to raise more crops on their land while maintaining soil for future generations. We know many farms have been in families for generations, and most farmers would place keeping those farms healthy for their kids and grandkids at the top of their motivation.
“We were instrumental at USB in the research and discovery of high oleic soybean oil, which may benefit heart health when used in food products. High oleic soybean oil also has an advantage over other oils used in frying because it stands up to higher heat and lasts longer in the fryer,” Ruhland stressed. “We think about new markets and new uses for new buyers in ways that other entities in the soybean complex don't, because we want to make sure farmers have a diverse and growing market for soy in the future.”
Another advantage for U.S. Soy heading into the future is its current sustainability profile. More than ever, the practice of farming is a technological pursuit. “We are always in pursuit of new ways to take care of the land to make soybean farming even more sustainable than it already is today,” Ruhland said.
Take, for example, seed development. “We work with industry on researching new seeds so they perform better and allow higher yields per acre, so more food can be produced on fewer acres. Aside from genetics development, farmers use GPS to precisely apply pesticides and herbicides instead of the broadcast sprays of the past. Our farmers monitor weather on-site so they can make better decisions about when to apply inputs based on weather patterns and heat index. These tools and research allow us to control pests, diseases and weeds to ensure today’s consumers have a nutritious, reliable, and sustainable food supply” she enumerated.
Use of these technologies and advancements make soy more sustainable every day. Ninety-five percent of U.S. soybeans are raised under the Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP), aimed at producing the highest quality bean with the least environmental impact.
“We strive to be a global leader in sustainability,” Ruhland said, “and by 2025, specific goals prioritize reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions while increasing energy efficiency on farms. Farmers are embracing the spirit of sustainability on the demand side as well, by using biofuels to power their tractors and other farm equipment rather than petroleum-based fuels.
“Farmers believe that the better they can care for the environment, the stronger they are because they’ve seen that stewardship for generations. The better farmers get at caring for the land, the more profitable they are and the better they are able to supply their products to the world.” The USB is a vital ally in that work. Just ask Polly and the farmers whose efforts continue to change the industry and the planet for the better.
United Soybean Board’s 78 farmer-directors work on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers to achieve maximum value for their soy checkoff investments. These volunteers invest and leverage checkoff funds in programs and partnerships to drive soybean innovation beyond the bushel and increase preference for U.S. soy. That preference is based on U.S. soybean meal and oil quality and the sustainability of U.S. soybean farmers. As stipulated in the federal Soybean Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has oversight responsibilities for USB and the soy checkoff.