What does the screen displaying this article have in common with your current seat?
They both likely contain petroleum-based raw materials.
Materials derived from petroleum help manufacture thousands of everyday products used around the world. Besides electronics and furniture, countless things use petrochemicals, including plastics, building materials and synthetic fibers. Providing a sustainable supply of petroleum-based materials to make these essentials presents a complex challenge. In 2023, petrochemicals accounted for a projected 7.46 million barrels of oil per day.1
“Thanks to innovation supported by U.S. Soy, we have discovered many industries where soy-based materials offer more sustainable solutions,” says John Jansen, vice president of marketing for the United Soybean Board. “For example, we’ve learned that soybean oil can be used for much, much more than just candles and crayons.”
Jansen explains that over the past two decades, soybeans have become an attractive alternative to petrochemical raw materials. While growing, they take carbon dioxide out of the air. As a legume, they enrich fields by adding nitrogen from the atmosphere to the soil that acts as fertilizer for other crops. And, as a raw material, they cost less than petrochemicals.
“Soybeans are renewable contributions to the global food, feed and fuel markets,” he continues. “In 2021, U.S. soybean farmers harvested 121.5 million metric tons, and they produced another 116.4 million metric tons in 2022. For the past decade, the U.S. soybean crop averaged 111.5 million metric tons.”2
Crushing those soybeans allows the oil to be separated from the other components. U.S. soybeans average 19% oil content. That oil offers incredible versatility, containing a variety of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids that can be readily modified for different uses. Like any vegetable oil, it can be used as a food ingredient in foodservice frying or for food processing in a cookie or cracker. The other components from crushing most often become soybean meal, a common source of protein in animal feed. However, soybean oil and protein can also replace petrochemicals in unexpected places.
U.S. Soy Creates Biobased Products
The use of a renewable resource like soy makes products biobased, rather than reliant on petroleum. For example, furniture companies can use soy-based foam in furniture cushions and mattresses, providing the same quality, comfort and durability as petroleum-based foam. That means soy could be softening your current seat. If that seat is hard, soy can be used in the furniture polish that keeps it clean.
“The versatile chemical composition of soybeans allows the extracted oil to be used for an astonishing range of applications,” Jansen says. “From artificial turf and bio-based shoes to adhesives and plastics, soy can replace petrochemicals in countless everyday products.”
While soy-based options don’t fit in every case, he believes they can be used enough to make a difference. Any replacement of raw materials derived from oil with those derived from soy reduces the carbon footprint of the end product.
“Plus, soy performance can equal or surpass petroleum-based materials in some applications,” he explains. “For example, soybean oil can increase water resistance in oil-based paints and coatings, while providing flexibility and durability.”
Providing Solutions While Maintaining U.S. Soy Contribution to Food Supply
Because soybeans contain oil and protein components, a given amount can meet multiple needs. That means that U.S. Soy provides those biobased solutions without sacrificing vital contributions to the global food, feed and vegetable oil supply.
“Soybean meal contains an amino acid profile that makes it a desirable animal feed,” Jansen says. “The oil extracted to make that meal can be used for food or to replace petrochemicals.”
Soybean oil supplies roughly 33% of the global vegetable oil need,3 and long-term projections predict that production of vegetable oil will continue to outpace demand.4 For example, in the U.S., demand for soybean oil for use in food and cooking has remained relatively constant since 2010. At the same time, adequate supply allowed industrial uses to more than double, while use of soybean oil as a biodiesel feedstock grew exponentially,5 and export volumes remain strong.6
“The data indicates that our farmers raise enough soybeans to deliver more than the protein and oil our traditional customers rely on,” Jansen continues. “For decades, they have been investing soy checkoff funds into research to learn where soy offers sustainable solutions for other industries, bringing dozens of new products to market for industries like construction, cleaning supplies, lubricants and more.”
He adds that the more diverse uses for soybean oil components have actually improved the cost-efficiency of soybean meal as an animal feed ingredient. That makes soy-based substitutes for petrochemicals a win for manufacturers, other segments of soy customers — and ultimately consumers.
1 Oil Demand, 2022 World Oil Outlook 2045, OPEC, 2022.
2 U.S. Yield & Production: Production History, SoyStats, 2023.
3 Production of major vegetable oils worldwide from 2012/13 to 2022/2023, by type, Statista, January 2023.
4 Vegetable oil projections: Production and food consumption, OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2023-2032.
5 U.S. Soybean Oil Food & Industrial Use, Market View Database, July 12, 2023.
6 Creating Value Through Versatility, USSEC Annual Report 2022.