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.”
Increasing Cover Crop Adoption and Carbon Credits
Cornell explains that farmers have taken it upon themselves to increase use of sustainable practices like cover crops. A group of farmer-led organizations recently formed Farmers for Soil Health, a collaboration to create farmer-led programs to provide sustainably focused resources to help farmers successfully implement practices that improve soil health, which increases carbon-storing capacity, and better measure the impact of the practices they use. Through the soy checkoff, U.S. Soy is part of this effort.
“One goal of Farmers for Soil Health is to expand cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030,” Cornell notes. “Efforts like this should increase the availability of ag-based carbon credits available via carbon markets.”
Neal Bredehoeft farms near Alma, Missouri and serves as a director for the soy checkoff. At the height of harvest season in September 2022, he hosted Robert Bonnie, the USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, along with several participating organizations on his farm to recognize a grant awarded to Farmers for Soil Health.
Bredehoeft explains how soil-sequestering practices fit into his soybean production.
“On our farm, we rotate between soybeans and corn,” he says. “We have used 100% no-till since 1995. We began incorporating cover crops into our system in 2015.”
Every year, Bredehoeft plants a cover crop into fields that will be planted to soybeans in the spring. He adds that they continuously try new things to figure out how best to incorporate cover crops after they harvest soybeans in fields that will be planted to corn the next year.
“The first thing we do with fields we are farming for the first time is to implement soil conservation practices that haven’t already been put in place,” Bredehoeft adds.
As farmers like Bredehoeft continue to improve their soil health, they increase soil capacity to store carbon. That represents a win for the supply of sustainable U.S. Soy, a win for companies investing in credits to reach carbon neutrality and a win for the environment, making it a win for all of us.
1 Top 10: companies committed to reducing carbon footprint, Sustainability, May 17, 2022.
2 The Demand for Nature-based Climate Solutions, Visual Capitalist, December 5, 2022.
3 Soil Carbon, Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, 2021. Environmental Outcomes from On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States (Fourth Edition).
4 2017 Census of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, April 2019.
5 Census of Ag: Cover Crop Acres in U.S. Growing 8% Per Year. Cover Crop Strategies, April 16, 2019.