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US Soybean Industry Protocol Addresses Sustainable Farming Practices

As soy production and uses have expanded worldwide, so have calls for more responsible farming practices to conserve vital natural resources.

High in protein and energy, soy is a key part of the global food supply. Roughly three-quarters of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed, due to rising demand for meat and dairy products. As soy production has expanded worldwide, so have calls for more responsible farming practices to conserve vital natural resources.

US soybean farmers faced the challenge for more sustainable production about 10 years ago. While farmers had been implementing conservation practices for years on their farms and were continuously improving those practices, the US soy industry saw the need for setting standards and goals. Customers in Europe and elsewhere also were asking for more proof about conservation regulations and practices.

In 2013, the US soy industry introduced the Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP, an important way for farmers to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and continuous improvement. Several stakeholders were involved in the development and implementation of SSAP — including the US Soybean Export Council, the United Soybean Board and the American Soybean Association. The SSAP describes the regulations, processes and management practices that ensure sustainable soybean production. These guidelines are based on the national system of conservation laws, which provide a quantifiable and results-driven approach that is today followed by more than 300,000 US soybean farmers.

The SSAP catalogs the federal legal requirements farmers who participate in the US Farm Program must meet, as well as any state and local laws. The US Farm Program is administered by the US Department of Agriculture, which supports more than 90 percent of farmers in implementing conservation programs via its Natural Resources Conservation Services. To qualify for NRCS support, producers must implement a farm-specific conservation plan, developed in coordination with the NRCS, which audits conservation programs to ensure compliance. Each year, more than 95 percent of US producers, including those in Illinois, participate in USDA commodity programs.

The SSAP includes four directives:

  • Biodiversity and high carbon stock include regulatory obligations to maintain wetlands, grasslands, forests, and enhance biodiversity.

  • Production practices covers guidelines that enhance the environment, as well as those that protect our natural resources while increasing production efficiency.

  • Public and labor health and welfare guidelines include the regulations and laws that provide for protection of the public and workers.

  • Continuous improvement includes sustainability efforts made by farmers to be more efficient and environmentally sound.

The SSAP is positively benchmarked by the Independent International Trade Center against the soy sourcing guidelines of the European Feed Manufacturers’ Organization. These guidelines address six key principles: legal compliance, responsible working conditions, environmental responsibility, good agricultural practices, respect for legal use of land and land rights and protection of community relations.

When US soybeans and soy materials are exported, a certificate verifying the soy meets the requirements of the SSAP is available upon request.

“The US Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol has proven to be a valuable tool in promoting and differentiating US soy versus our competitors,” says Austin DeLong of the DeLong Company Inc, a wholesale grain distributor. “It is a quick, cost-effective, and understandable system of sustainability based on farmer participation in US farm program regulations.”

The SSAP also set national sustainability goals for 2025:

  • Reduce land use impact by 10 percent (measured as acres per bushel)

  • Reduce soil erosion an additional 25 percent (measured as acres per bushel)

  • Increase energy use efficiency by 10 percent (measured as BTUs per year)

  • Reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent (measured as pounds CO2-equivalent gases emitted per year)

Last year, the European Union formally recognized the US Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol-Renewable Energy Directive (SSAP-RED). This program allows oil from certified US soybeans to be used as feedstock for biodiesel production in the EU, which has biofuel mandates as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

Sustainability requirements of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive restrict cultivation of biofuels feedstock from land that has been converted since 2008 from any of three protected land categories: grasslands; forest; and wetlands, including peatlands. The directive also has requirements on auditing and compliance, including independent third-party review.

In July, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) — one of the world’s largest food processing and commodities trading companies — became the second exporter to complete the SSAP-RED accreditation.

“The completion of our SSAP-RED accreditation is another step toward the long-term sustainable goals of ADM,” said Nick Smith, general manager of ADM’s EU Biodiesel program. “By leveraging ADM’s value chain from farmer origination in the US to our crushing and biodiesel facilities in Europe, we are now able to provide our biodiesel customer base in Europe with year-round options for sustainably sourced soy-based biofuel.”

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