Soy & Sustainability
In many ways, Sharon Covert and her husband, Jim, farm the old-school way. They respect and adhere to the decades-old conservation practices that have distinguished Illinois as a model for environmental stewardship nationwide.
At the same time, the Coverts also serve as diligent students of the modern agricultural learning curve. Sharon Covert embraces the role that emerging crop technologies bring to preserving the soil, water and air she shares with her Northern Illinois neighbors.
It’s called sustainability, and it’s the way of a changing world.
Few know it better than Covert, who as chair of the national United Soybean Board (USB) Customer Focus Action Team helps to assure soybean farmers a prime spot in the global sustainable marketplace.
With an eye toward the export market, this group of soybean farmers has worked to develop an economically feasible, environmentally friendly “sustainable protocol” for U.S. soy production.
That protocol encompasses an extensive study of the soybean life cycle from field to market and its impact on land use, water resources and greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change. U.S. farmers use conservation practices such as minimum tillage and no-till. This practice, which protects valuable topsoil, refers to leaving crop residues in the field after harvest instead of plowing them under.
“This is something farmers have done for years and years – we just haven’t talked about it very much,” Covert says. “We keep trying to improve what we do to be sustainable. It’s important not only economically for farmers – it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for the general public at large.”
Sustainable practices reduce both the use of chemicals and the amount of energy required to produce crops.
“Biotechnology has been a big part of it,” Covert says. “Because we have biotech seed, many farmers are doing no-till or minimum till.”
She says genetic crop improvements, such as herbicide-tolerant soybeans, have helped increase the use of minimum and no-till practices by alleviating weed problems that can emerge in crop residues. In addition to preventing soil erosion and chemical runoff into streams and rivers, biotech-aided farming systems have also helped reduce the number of trips growers must make across their fields, saving fuel and generating fewer carbon emissions.
Howard Buffett, a Pana (Christian County) farmer whose Howard G. Buffett Foundation helps guide global agricultural development, says the United States can lead the way in sustainability worldwide.
“We have the knowledge, the technology and the abundant resources,” says Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
On a global level, he says, soil loss contributes to hunger, malnutrition and actions that further degrade our environment. With support from the Buffett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center’s Institute for International Crop Improvement works to develop improved crops that yield more per acre, contain more essential nutrients, and resistance to disease, insects and drought for small farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Biotechnology offers key sustainable production benefits. “In the long term, it’s foolish not to use it,” Buffett says.
Meanwhile, the National Soybean Research Laboratory (NSRL) at the University of Illinois taps the power of soy to change developing world diets. Many crop staples in developing nations provide high amounts of energy but lack the protein needed to bolster immunity against disease and sharpen mental acuity key to education and economic growth.
NSRL experts have trained Nigerian chefs and food processors to incorporate soy protein into popular regional dishes, while researchers look to soy to boost the nutritional impact of Medika Mamba, a therapeutic product for malnourished Haitian children that contains ground peanuts, powdered milk, vitamins and minerals.
Children eat it at school. “It kind of tastes like peanut butter,” says Melinda Anderson, NSRL spokesperson.
Back at home, technologies that foster conservation serve as a vital factor to the American farmer’s bottom line. Covert notes reduced tillage systems help conserve crop-nurturing soil moisture. “In a drought year like last year, that was important,” she says.
And sound conservation practices have helped give Illinois farmers, such as the Coverts, a leg up in an increasingly sustainable international market. An estimated 44 percent of Illinois soybeans move into export channels.
“We need to be sure the soybeans grown in the United States are considered sustainable,” Covert says.
Biotech: A Building Block
Biotechnology represents a growing element of Illinois’ economic development, and agriculture remains key to the sector’s Midwest strength, according to the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO).
“Illinois is at the core of the most vibrant bioscience cluster in the United States,” iBIO President David Miller says.
The Midwest Super Cluster includes more than 16,800 biotech/life sciences concerns that together employ 377,900-plus people.
According to iBIO, Illinois’ biotech industry accounts for more than $98.6 billion-plus in overall economic output and 81,000 direct jobs.
Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Adam Pollet names a variety of downstate ag-based companies in that mix, including Archer Daniels Midland, Tate and Lyle, Ingredion (formerly corn sweetener manufacturer Corn Products International), and renewable fuels processor Abengoa.
Pollet sees “some of the most cutting-edge research and innovation” emerging at the intersection of biotechnology and bioenergy through collaboration between university and corporate scientists. Ag biotechnology offers potential from “health to energy to industrial applications” such as plant-based plastics, Pollet says.
And Illinois’ biotech industry overall reportedly generates $3 billion in annual state and local tax revenues. “The fact that you can get $3 billion in revenues in this state is incredible,” iBIO’s Fritz Bittenbender says.