In the shadow of an escalating climate crisis, U.S. soy producers – like all farmers – are at the vanguard of a critical movement. Many of them are championing Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) to ensure their land endures as a fertile bastion in the face of the challenges presented by our warming climate. After all, the world’s food system is already responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions – and by 2050, we will all need more food[1] as the population soars to almost 10 billion people.

But what does Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) actually mean and what does it entail? How are our guardians of the grain innovating to keep our soil robust, our produce plentiful, and our planet protected?

Well, CSA is more than a philosophy; it’s a pragmatic fusion of tradition and technology. At its heart, CSA aims to achieve three intertwined goals:

  1. to sustainably increase agricultural productivity
  2. to adapt and build resilience to climate change
  3. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.

The World Bank[2] describes CSA as “an integrated approach to managing landscapes – cropland, livestock, forests and fisheries – that address the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change”.

For U.S. soy producers, this essentially means growing more with less, safeguarding soy crops against the unpredictability brought about by climate change, and developing farming operations and methods that have a much smaller environmental footprint. As Jack Cornell, the United Soybean Board’s Director of Sustainable Supply says, “farmers have been doing Climate Smart Agriculture for a long time; it’s just the marketing terminology that has changed.

“And this change is being driven by investors of companies and consumers that want to know more about where their food, fuel and fiber comes from – and they want it to be more sustainable.”

What does innovation look like?

The American heartland is no stranger to change. Today, U.S. soy farmers are redefining the agricultural landscape with innovative practices under the CSA umbrella. Soil health is paramount, with an increasing number of farmers implementing crop rotations and planting cover crops to enrich the soil, prevent erosion, and naturally manage pests. The old practice of leaving fields bare during off-seasons is giving way to cover cropping, which keeps living roots in the soil year-round.

Reduced tillage or no-till farming is becoming a mainstay, as it minimizes soil disturbance, preserving its structure and carbon content. By limiting tillage, producers are not only curbing carbon emissions but also enhancing water retention and soil biodiversity – a trifecta win for the environment.

Precision agriculture is also taking root. By harnessing satellite imagery and soil sensors, farmers can map their fields with unprecedented detail, allowing for precise use of fertilizers and water. Data analytics interpret this information, optimizing planting schedules and crop selection for maximal yield and minimal environmental impact.

The tools and technology shaping the future of farming

The digital revolution has aided agriculture, with cutting-edge tools and technology promising a new era of farming. Drones take to the skies to provide detailed aerial surveys, enabling farmers to monitor crop health, spot pest infestations, and even target pesticide applications to reduce overall usage.

Biotechnology is making its mark with genetically engineered soybeans that are more resilient to climate extremes, pests, and diseases. These advancements not only bolster the crop against environmental stressors but also reduce the need for chemical interventions.

Farm management software platforms are the new digital workhorses, synthesizing data from various sources to guide decision-making. They track crop development, forecast weather impacts, and manage resources, making the farm smarter and more responsive to climate dynamics.

How are Climate Smart practices helping?

The shift to CSA is bearing fruit in tangible ways. Environmental benefits are evident as these practices reduce the carbon footprint of farming operations. Cover crops, for example, capture carbon dioxide and enrich the soil.

Stress-resistant crop varieties result in better yields and higher-quality produce. These hardier crops are more likely to survive extreme weather, ensuring food security and consistency in supply.

Economically, CSA practices can lead to significant cost savings. Efficient resource use translates to lower water and fertilizer bills, and healthier soils mean reduced inputs and labor costs over time. The return on investment extends beyond the farm gate, with the potential for higher profits through premium markets for sustainable products.

But that’s not to say that incorporating CSA is easy. “Any time a farmer changes what they do or how they manage their land, there’s a risk of their crop failing or being less profitable,” adds Cornell. “It’s like baking a cake; I might follow the recipe to the letter but it might still take a few tries to get it right. I might not have access to the exact right ingredients or my oven might be different to other ovens. The same goes for farming, no one soil is the same, and the inputs and management have varying degrees of success in different weather systems or geographies.”

A range of benefits for consumers, companies and the planet

Consumers are increasingly mindful of the origins of their food and the practices behind them. Soy products derived from CSA practices meet this demand for sustainable consumption choices, aligning with a healthier lifestyle ethos.

Businesses, too, are recognizing the importance of sustainable supply chains. Companies that invest in CSA-sourced ingredients can bolster their corporate responsibility credentials and appeal to a growing eco-conscious market segment.

For the future of Planet Earth, the long-term environmental benefits of CSA are profound. By preserving natural resources and biodiversity, CSA practices ensure that the agricultural landscapes of today can continue to thrive for generations to come.

Investment in farming is crucial

As we grapple with the pressing realities of climate change, U.S. soy producers embracing Climate Smart Agriculture are sowing the seeds of hope. Through their commitment to innovative practices and technologies, they are cultivating a future where farming doesn’t just feed us, it heals and sustains our world. “We’re very excited about new developments, and increased interest, in CSA,” says Cornell. “There are more collaborations, new sources of funding, and interest from groups that have changed their mentality – from simply seeking the cheapest commodity to having a real interest in sustainability and farmer stewardship.”

To truly leverage the benefits of CSA, farmers must continue to be invested in. “They are on the ground every day, working on improving the land for the next generation,” he adds. “For the U.S. to put in land managers that would do the level of conservation that farmers do, the cost would be so astronomical that it would not be sustainable. It is important we leverage the generational knowledge and expertise that farmers provide for us to achieve climate smart commodities.”

As consumers, businesses, and global citizens, supporting CSA is a step toward a healthier planet. In the narrative of climate change, agriculture is both a character and a storyteller, and with climate smart practices, it tells a story of hope, innovation, and endurance.