Tofu. That’s what most people think soybeans are grown for. But most soybeans in the U.S. are grown for oil and livestock feed. It’s big business. America is the world’s largest producer and exporter of soybeans with almost 75 million acres planted annually. It is second only to corn, planted on roughly 84 million acres. The top ten soybean producing states are all in the Mississippi River watershed. You’ve heard of “King Corn”, well now there’s “Queen Bean”.
Grain producers in the Midwest and their deep pocketed lobbying groups such as the American Farm Bureau and The Fertilizer Institute are “skeered” they might have to buck up to EPA pressure to do more to keep their soil, nutrients and pesticides out of the Mississippi River, which by the way, is the leading cause for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – the second largest in the world. That’s why they recently sent a delegation of soybean growers to the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland to find out just what our Chesapeake farmers are doing to help us restore the Chesapeake Bay. OMG…they might have to implement soil conservation measures!
I wrote an OPED piece for the Bay Journal News Service about it which was distributed on April 21st. Read the piece here.
As with all annually planted crops soil conservation and nutrient management are a imperative to keep what farmers pay dearly for, fertilizer and pesticides, from leaching into ground water or running off into nearby ditches, streams and rivers.
Soybeans are especially vulnerable to both. The steeper the land, the more conservation practices are needed to prevent polluted runoff. Combinations of practices such as no-till farming, planting on the contour, cover crops, crop rotation, contour strip farming and nutrient management are very effective at preventing soil erosion and reducing water runoff. The simple practice of planting on the contour can reduce the likelihood of soil erosion in half.
I have witnessed a lot of soil erosion from soybeans being planted on sloping fields. Here’s why they are vulnerable: beans are usually harvested late in the fall, which is often too late to plant winter cover crops.
Their residues (what’s left after the beans are harvested) have a low carbon to nitrogen ratio so it breakes down or decomposes much faster than corn stalks. This leaves a high percentage of the field bare. Bare soil through the winter is a recipe for disastrous soil erosion and runoff.
It’s a simple fix: plant cover crops, reduce tillage and plant on the contour.
Learn more about soil health here.
I did not realize how vulnerable soybeans were to soil runoff and other issues. I also didn’t realize how much of soybean yields went towards oil and livestock feed. I had always assumed they were made to use in a variety of foods. I myself have lived in the country, next door to multiple fields and farms all my life. These fields usually rotate between corn, cotton, and beans depending on the season. I am generally used to seeing the soybean residue in different fields during the fall and winter months. Since my home and the nearby fields reside mostly on flat land, I had never heard of contour farming until this class. I can, however, see why this is such a problem in elevated, mountainous regions. If contour farming truly does help this much with erosion, it should be a no-brainer for farmers. It is amazing to me how much farmers rely on soil for their livelihood, but also just as surprising they aren’t necessarily doing everything in their power to conserve and protect it. With time and education, I have confidence you will see more and more farmers open up to the benefits of utilizing contour farming.
Good comments, Tyler. Thank you.
Soybeans are considered to be one of the most destructive crops in multiple ways. Not only does soy degrade soil at an impressive rate, as mentioned in this article, it is also the reason for mass deforestation. According to Mongabay, 10% of worldwide deforestation between 2006 and 2017 was done to clear land for soy. The majority of the yield is used for animal feed – which is another complicated system. The soil degradation caused by soy also limits farmer’s resources. It causes the to fall into a positive feedback loop of needing more fertilizer, contributing to more runoff and pollution, and constant soil loss. But the farmers are not at complete fault here. In this capitalist society, large corporations (fertilizer, herbicide, etc) have immense power over legislatures and the government. These industries are able to control many of the decisions occurring on capital hill, such as incentives for better land management practices, instead of depending on the destructive, current cycles.
Anna, Bravo! Connecting all those dots is impressive. It is indeed multiple positive feedback loops.
It seems like reducing tillage and planting on the contour are both easy improvements that could be made on soybean farms, but if soybeans are generally harvested too late to plant winter cover crops, is there another solution to prevent bare soil throughout the winter? I’m assuming most farms are way too big to realistically be covered by a tarp, but I feel like soybean farmers who harvest too late to plant a cover crop could still throw down hay or mulch to help protect the soil throughout the winter. On another note, I feel like the theme so far surrounding farmers and protecting groundwater has been that a lot of them really don’t care. I’m not sure if this is due to lack of information or general apathy towards the environment, buts it’s unfortunate because they have the potential to have a really big impact, both positively and negatively.
They sure do, Chelsea. Thank you.
I had no idea that the majority of soybean farming occurred in the Mississippi River watershed. It’s super interesting that farmers and legislators are looking to the Chesapeake Bay restoration practices as examples of what they can do to restore their own watershed. With all of the pushback conservationists have received from farmers and lobbyists opposing contour farming and other soil restoration practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I wonder if the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts are going to be able to inspire these farmers to use these practices themselves. However, it’s great to see that a lot of these soil restoration practices seem to be universal. Contour farming appears to be just as applicable to sloped areas in the Southeast United States as it is in the Northeast, but I wonder which of the soil conservation practices may have to be augmented to be just as efficient in the Mississippi River watershed as they were in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Leah, thank for you your comments and questions. The two simplest BMPs to implement in the Mississippi watershed are contour farming and winter cover crops. The recently passed IRA will provide millions of dollars to incentivize cover crops in that region.
It’s interesting how most of the soybean harvests aren’t even going directly to human consumption, but getting fed to our livestock. Which makes it one of the most important crops on the planet for our food production. I have no experience in the food industry but I wonder if there have been other crops capable of producing the same yield large enough to feed all of our livestock. If soybeans are so essential for feed and the second most grown crop in the U.S., then it seems necessary for safe practices to be put in place to protect the soil in which it’s grown.
I grew up in Franklin, Virginia, an area containing many fields of cotton, soybeans, corn, and peanuts. I remember seeing Soybean fields right behind a few of my friends houses. I think back now and wonder what those soybeans were being grown for, what companies would use them, and what type of farming practices were being used. If I had to guess, they’re being used for oil or soybean silage, and there probably was not many BMP’s being utilized. As Anna mentioned, these positive feedback loops within these complex food, agricultural, and political systems are causing catastrophic events. These events could be prevented with the implementation of BMP’s on fields. Unfortunately, there are many things that stand in the way of this being a simple fix. As people on this Earth, some things we can do to help this issue is by spreading awareness and advocating for the environment.
Absolutely, Alyssa. Thank you.
I was unaware how prevalent soybeans are in America. I knew corn was abundantly grown in America, but never considered soybeans would be more common. I think this is due to not seeing soybeans around in stores or sold at farmers markets. Since a majority of soybeans are grown for animal feed and oil it is easy to overlook for someone who is not near or around the farms which grow it. With soybeans being America’s largest produced crop and exporting crop it surprises me there are not more strict regulations put in place to ensure soil health on a majority of the farms. If simply altering the way farmers grow their soybeans by planting cover crops, reducing tillage, and planting on a contour can lower the likelihood of soil erosion by half then it should be a required step. These methods seem to be a very low price to pay for ensuring the fields and soil will flourish for many more years as well as preserve the groundwater, streams, and rivers nearby. I am hopeful farmers will shift their priorities to the quality of their land and input soil conservation methods whether it be mandated or for their own benefit of preserving their land.
Sydney, thank you. Good comments.
It seems like reducing tillage and planting on the contour are both easy improvements that could be made on soybean farms, but if soybeans are generally harvested too late to plant winter cover crops, is there another solution to prevent bare soil throughout the winter? I’m assuming most farms are way to big to realistically be covered by a tarp, but I feel like soybean farmers who harvest too late to plant a cover crop could still throw down hay or mulch to help protect the soil throughout the winter. On another note, I think it’s really unfortunate that the American Farm Bureau and The Fertilizer Institute are scared to be held responsible for protecting soils. These organizations work closely with farms and their encouragement of BMPs has the potential to have a widespread impact on the way farmers view these practices.
Chelsea, you ask some really good questions. One solution is to plant soybeans that mature at an earlier date. These are widely available. They don’t yield as much but is poorer soil worth a greater yield? Also, there have been many trials to fly on cover crops before the soybeans drop their leaves. This has not been very successful though.
It is a sad coincidence that the nation’s second biggest crop also struggles with producing a lot of sediment erosion, unlike corn and such. It is also unfortunate to relate the abundance of soy in this country to the second largest dead zone in the world–hopefully we can find ways to remedy this pollution from the soybean industry for the sake of our environment and economy.
It looks like tofu may not be as sustainable an alternative to meat as I thought. It’s interesting that soybeans as a non-processed food item are not commonplace in the US despite them being such a widely produced crop here. I cannot think of a time where I have seen them sold in stores or in any capacity other than select stores having frozen edamame. I didn’t know that planting cover crops as a BMP was a limited option due to harvest times. What can be produced after that point in the season and what can’t? Is soybean a more harmful crop than corn overall? I would assume it makes for a more nutritious feed for cattle than corn but it does seem as though it creates additional issues that need to be resolved. Are cover crops that return nutrients to the soil still in season after the soybean harvest? Despite all of the downsides, it does seem as though many of the drawbacks of soybeans as a crop are easier to remedy than might be expected for something that has so many environmental consequences when using typical farming techniques. It seems like more needs to be done legislatively to enforce these BMPs, with the sheer quantity of soybeans grown in the US (had no idea there was so much) it would make a significant difference in environmental impact.
Thank you, Sophia. See my response to Chelsea. You are correct to question soy as an alternative to meat. Let’s bring that up in class.
I had no idea that the U.S. is the largest producer and exporter of soybeans in the world! I thought it was definitely China or at least some Asian country considering how many soybean products they eat. But I guess it makes sense since most soybeans are grown for animal feed or oil in America. If the simple solution here is to plant cover crops, reduce tillage, and plant on the contour, then farmers should be doing it! It makes me wonder if maybe planting cover crops takes too much time, energy or money to do. It also makes me wonder what are some good cover crops to plant after harvesting soybeans? Since there is a low carbon to nitrogen ratio, what would be some good cover to replenish that after a large harvest?
Very good questions, Josey. We, soil conservationists, have been trying to convince farmers for decades that it is much more profitable to have healthy soil than a bigger harvest at the expense of soil health. We haven’t been very successful. We’ll discuss this more in class.
It’s unfortunate that fertilizer, which has allowed for bountiful crop growth and sustaining the human population, is also one of the leading causes of ocean dead zones. This makes it increasingly important to implement soil conservation methods to prevent excessive runoff which contributes to that issue. However, I was not aware that soybeans are the second largest crop market in America and that the top soybean states are in the Mississippi River watershed. With a market that big, reducing polluted runoff becomes extra important and calls for a large-scale implementation of conservation practices.
Very good, Hayden. Thank you.
Growing up in Chesterfield County, I have spent a good amount of time in the neighboring rural Amelia County. I’ve seen lots of soybean fields there and have hunted some of them in the winter after they’d been harvested. I did wonder why some were bare and some had grasses planted after harvest, but now that I know about the management practice of cover crops, it makes more sense. It is sad to hear that the Mississippi River watershed is much further behind in their soil conservation and nutrient management compared to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The fact that this is mostly about politics instead of environmental concern is something that needs to be fixed, as the environmental effects in the Gulf are obviously destructive to aquatic ecosystems.
Spot on, Joeseph. Thank you.
Seeing just how important soybeans are for the farmers of America was essential information that I was previously unaware of. I knew the soybeans were mainly used for feed, but I did not know the scope of how many farmers actually relied on soybeans as their main crop. Similarly, conserving the soil is immensely important when growing soybeans, so best management practices like planting on the contour become all the more important for this commodity. Now every time I see a soybean field, it will be impossible not to notice which best management practices they are using and what ones they are neglecting.
It is interesting that a majority of soy production occurs near the mississippi river basin. We can really see the impact with the amount of dead zones downstream. It is scary to see how invested america is in monocrop agriculture especially with crops like soy which leave the soil bare for months at a time. I’m interested to understand the rationale behind picking specific cover crops. I understand that you would like a crop that can grow year round but, how large of crops do you want, how much/little water or nutrients should the selected crop use, etc.
I did not realize how much soy was produced in the US. I knew prior to this article that soy was a large agricultural product in the US because it is used as feed for poultry. However, it being second to corn was a little bit of a shock to me, especially because of how close it is to corn in terms of acres used. In terms of soybean crops polluting the Mississippi River, I think it is a great idea to look at other places in the US where soil conservation methods are being implemented. If they can work in the Chesapeake bay, they can work in the Mississippi River too. It disheartens me to hear that farmers might have to grudgingly “conform” to the EPA’s potential ruling on soil conservation measures. Farmers should be doing them anyways if they wish to have a fruitful business that has longevity. As of now, they are destroying the basis of their business by not protecting the soil.
Before Reading this article I was very unfamiliar with how large the soybean industry is in the U.S. but it was disheartening to read about the damage that it produces as well. Not only is it degrading the soil that it is being grown in it is also degrading ecosystems that are less than a hundred to over a thousand miles away. To make it worse that there are known strategies to halt some of the processes that deteriorate the land yet more destructive practices are used. This article helped me learn more about the size and the negative impacts of the “Queen Bean”.
This post really put our agricultural system into perspective for me. I knew that a majority of corn that is grown in the US wasn’t actually used for human consumption, however, I had never really heard about how this extends to soy as well. It is crazy to think that such an essential crop in the realm of livestock raising can have such extreme negative impacts correlated with it. This post left me with the perception that many farmers who are involved in such practices are just indifferent to the impacts that they have. The inability of farmers to implement sustainable practices such as planting cover crops was also extremely surprising to me and left me wondering why we have these food production systems that are so heavily reliant on these unsustainable crops.