The recent soybean-planting season in South America spotlights a growing need for agricultural collaboration worldwide, says Bob Metz, a fifth-generation South Dakota farmer.
"They very much are curious and very much respect what we do in the U.S. as farmers," says Metz, a past president of the American Soybean Association. He has visited South America seven times, most recently this spring to present at a conference for more than 300 of its top producers. "They want to know how they compare in a very nice way. They are very competitive on what they yield, both in soybeans and in corn."
Brazil is the continent’s largest soybean grower, and USDA projections show the country might produce more beans than the U.S. next year.
"But that’s not all bad," Metz says. "If you look at the needs of the world, especially China, Southeast Asia … we need all of those acres."
In those countries, members of the growing middle class have the capital to choose their food as opposed to buying only what they can afford. That means more people are eating meat, creating demand for soybean meal fed to livestock. One-fourth of all U.S. soybeans go to China, Metz says, and more than 90 percent of the world’s exportable soybeans come from the Americas.
That has pushed growers on both continents to work together more closely on issues of biotechnology and sustainability. For example, an organization called the International Soybean Growers Alliance aims to foster collaboration. This summer, Metz and farmers from Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil visited Europe in an effort to ease leaders’ fears about biotechnology.
U.S. farmers are using Roundup Ready 2 soybeans, while South American farmers are planting other beans that also have been genetically modified.
"We need to embrace technology if we’re going to feed the world," says Metz, summarizing the group’s message to Europeans. "We just want to tell you that unless you speed up your approval, we won’t have the soybeans to sell you."
Metz isn’t worried about commodity prices hurting U.S. farmers in the event that Brazilian production comes out ahead. Instead, he’s impressed by the technological progress he sees in South America.
When Metz first visited South America in 1999, planting technology was limited: He could look into a field and see between six and eight small tractors in operation, each with a six-row planter and a person riding on the back of it to ensure it was working properly.
Now, the cost of labor has increased substantially, and it’s much more common to see modern tractors and combines. While farmers grow both corn and soybeans, they prefer soybeans because they can be raised with less fertilizer and transported at a cheaper rate.
South American farmers also have successfully attacked soybean rust that once plagued the Mato Grosso in central Brazil. They now spray between two and three times per growing season to control it, as opposed to five or six times, Metz says.