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The soybean is often referred to as the "miracle crop." Providing both protein and oil for human and animal consumption, as well as an alternative to petrochemicals in the industrial market, the soybean is an example of how versatile renewable resources can be. The United States has produced more than 2.5 billion bushels of soybeans each year since 1997. With such a large annual crop to utilize, the soybean industry has been working to find new markets and applications for the versatile product.

The global demand for soybeans has more than doubled that of corn since 1990 and is growing seven times faster than wheat and cotton. Nearly half of the soybeans produced in the United States were exported to foreign markets during the 2002/2003 marketing year. While the export market is one of the top priorities for the soybean industry, it is not expected to increase significantly during the next 10 years due to growing production in South America. This adds to the need of building new markets for U.S. soybeans.

One of the leaders in the industry that has committed funds and other resources to growing the U.S. soybean export market is the American Soybean Association (ASA). In cooperation with the soybean checkoff, ASA has helped foreign markets identify the need for soybeans, leading to increased exports to a particular country. For instance, with checkoff funds, ASA staff in China worked to educate aquaculture industry leaders on positive attributes of soybean meal in fish feed. This successful aquaculture program helped China move from its status as a leading exporter to the leading customer for U.S. soybean exports.

"The importance of our foreign customers is priceless when it comes to value for the soybean industry," says Brent Babb, director of operations for ASA International Marketing. "ASA continues to place a strong emphasis on creating customer preference for U.S. soybeans and expanding foreign markets. And we're helping to determine future needs of our customers so we can secure their growing business."

Working Together

So how will U.S. farmers continue to compete in the foreign marketplace? Providing high-quality soybeans that are considered a premium product is key. Recently, industry partners formed QUALISOY, a coalition focused on addressing the changing demands of the food and feed industries, as well as improving the global competitiveness of U.S. soybeans.

QUALISOY will work to develop and commercialize new soybean varieties with enhanced compositional traits. These traits are expected to add value to U.S. soybeans and soy products. Long-term, QUALISOY plans to develop a pipeline of enhanced compositional traits that improve the health attributes of soybean oil and soybean meal, such as lower saturated fat, reduced linolenic acid levels and higher metabolizable energy levels in soy meal.

"QUALISOY represents a progressive industry coalition that plans to bring about significant changes in the quality and marketability of U.S. soybeans," says Kerry Preete, vice president of U.S. crop production for Monsanto and QUALISOY Board vice chairman. "There is no better way to advance this industry than to have representatives from all parties working together toward a common goal."

Demand At Home

Improving the composition of current soybean varieties is one of the best ways to keep U.S. soybeans competitive. Organizations such as the soybean checkoff invest in research projects that focus on improving soybean composition to meet customer demands. Although composition is important in securing international demand, it is also important for domestic customers of U.S. soy.

The livestock industry is the largest domestic customer of soybean meal. Cattle, hogs, poultry and aquaculture are all consuming soybean meal at a growing rate. Recognizing the importance of this industry, the United Soybean Board is implementing an Animal Agriculture Initiative. This initiative will invest funds to secure future growth in the animal agriculture industry and will educate soybean farmers on why their neighbors are one of the most important customers they have. Additionally, research to develop a higher protein soybean will ultimately benefit the livestock industry.

"The soybean checkoff realizes the need to take care of our customers, domestically and internationally," says Criss Davis, USB chairman. "Not only does the livestock industry consume an enormous amount of soybeans domestically, but as agricultural stewards, it's important that our industries work together to succeed."

The food industry is another domestic market that relies heavily on the quality of soybeans. Contrary to the livestock industry, the food industry concentrates on soybean oil rather than meal. In fact, more than 80 percent of the domestic soybean oil use is in the food industry. Recently, the food industry has faced the challenge of dealing with the trans-fat issue. Soybean oil with a high linolenic acid content requires hydrogenation, which causes an increase in trans-fatty acids. To eliminate the increase in this undesirable trait, composition research is trying to develop a soybean variety that is low in linolenic acid. Research is also supporting ways to eliminate the need for hydrogenation when processing soybean oil, such as intersterification.

In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a claim that foods containing 6.25 grams or more of soy per serving are low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. This claim led to increased associations between soyfoods and human health, including decreased risks of osteoporosis and some cancers and decreased symptoms of menopause. Because of this claim, soyfoods have seen a dramatic increase in demand in the past five years. The growth is expected to continue, with retail sales projected to top $4 billion in 2004. Another industry that relies heavily on soybean oil is the biodiesel industry. Currently, soy biodiesel is the fastest-growing alternative fuel in the country. Organizations such as the National Biodiesel Board and the soybean checkoff are currently funding research and marketing efforts to continue to increase the demand for soy biodiesel. There are nearly 1,200 soy biodiesel retailers in the United States, up from 475 only two years ago.

"The growth of soy biodiesel is unbelievable, and its versatility adds to its potential," says Joe Jobe, National Biodiesel Board executive director. "Soy biodiesel can be used in any blend. It can also be used as a heating oil additive. Considering the state of our foreign oil markets and the threats to our environment, soy biodiesel is a great alternative to petroleum diesel."

New Markets

The alternative fuels market provides new opportunities and applications for soybeans, and several other industrial markets hold great potential as well. The soybean checkoff is partnering with several major industry leaders in the areas of solvents, lubricants and plastics to develop soy-based alternatives to traditional products.

For example, nearly three years ago, John Deere announced that some panels on a combine series would be made out of a soy-based plastic. This same plastic technology has been used to develop carpet backing, which is now marketed by Dow Chemical. Similarly, major solvents manufacturers such as Florida Chemical are looking at soybeans as a viable alternative and additive to harmful chemicals.

The soybean industry has come a long way since the beans were first introduced to the United States in 1804. From feeding humans and livestock to fueling fleets across the country, the soybean is making an extraordinary contribution to everyday life. Y

Cindy Hackmann is an account executive for Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis.

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