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Finding ways to feed the world
Illinois farmers are tops in production, but more is needed

I have had the honor to work for Illinois farmers for the past 40 years, with much of that work being in development and research activities for soybeans. Each year, Illinois is either number one or number two in U.S. soybean production. What a great position to hold!

Soy is such a diverse crop. Most of our soy protein goes to livestock to produce our meat, milk and eggs, but an increasing amount of soy protein is being consumed directly by people around the world. Of all the soy oil we produce, about 75 percent is consumed by people directly as vegetable oil, with the rest going into products such as biodiesel, plastics and an array of other products. About half of our soybean crop and products are exported, making soybean farmers extremely important to the balance of trade and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Illinois.

Today we have about 6.7 billion people in the world and they are pretty much using up our soybean production worldwide. That population number is expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, with virtually all new growth occurring in the underdeveloped and developing world. For a perspective, over the next 43 years, the population will grow by the equivalent of what the world population was in 1950.

We are very fortunate in Illinois. We know that available land to feed people in these population growth countries is scarce and two-thirds of available land is located across only 13 of these developing countries.

In the year 2000, the Illinois Soybean Association and the University of Illinois worked in conjunction with the American Soybean Association to form the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH). This program was meant to assist the least developed countries in filling their protein needs through the use of soy. We knew at that time that from 2001 to 2025 world protein consumption would increase by 75 percent, and we wanted to be sure that soy was out front helping fill that demand.

Whether populations consumed soy directly or consumed meat, milk and eggs, soy could be there to help fill the need. Many of the lowest income people (about 3 billion) live on less than $2 per day. We also know that as growth occurs in these countries and people improve from $2 to $10 per day, they will eat more meat, dairy products, fruits, vegetables and edible oils causing rapid demand.

Here in the United States we have developed biodiesel as a great alternative and clean burning fuel, improved soybean varieties that produce healthier vegetable oils for people and continuously increased yields in an environmentally sustainable fashion. Over the course of my career we have been through some great research innovations, especially in the areas of biotechnology, gene transfer and nanotechnology. I continue to be amazed at how rapidly our research innovations come forth. Of course, each new innovation brings challenges, skepticism and fear of the unknown. With vigilant oversight and testing, we seem to be able to keep moving forward with amazing new genetics and products that are not only safe, but help each of us to eat and live healthier. And, amazingly, soybeans always seem to be in the middle of all the action.

All of my life farmers have done a great job of working together for their own common good, and I certainly hope farmers continue to work together for their future. I think when we look back even 25 years from now, the rapidness of change we have seen over the past few decades will seem like a snail’s pace compared to then.

Collectively, farmers can work to be sure that here in Illinois we are the first adopters of new technologies and to provide ourselves with information tools that help us compare best and least cost practices of products offered by private companies.

We are very blessed to have millions of productive acres in Illinois, most of which do not require irrigation. And the good news is today, and certainly for the foreseeable future, the world needs everything we can produce. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says that global food production alone must double by 2050. What a great opportunity and what a bright future for what Illinois farmers do best – produce!

 


Lyle Roberts is the CEO of the Illinois Soybean Association.

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