The True Cost of Soybeans

We’ve long suspected that organic soybeans are better for the environment than conventional soybeans grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Now, we know how much better.

According to a June 2015 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, growing organic soybeans is 16 percent less harmful to the environment than producing conventional soybeans.

The hidden costs of farming – greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution and water consumption – depend on how the crops are grown. When these so-called “natural capital costs” are added, the FAO found that the total cost of growing conventional soybeans is 37 percent higher than the total annual revenue from soybean sales.

The value of the natural resources used to grow a ton of non-organic soybeans is about $440, or $72 more than the value of the resources depleted by growing organic soybeans. About two-thirds of that savings is from reduced consumption of water and soil, and a third from lower emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollution.

Of course, farmers don’t actually pay upfront for the damage chemical fertilizers and pesticides wreak on the air, water and soil. People who rely on clean air and water – that’s all of us – end up settling that tab. If farmers did have to pay for the environmental harm caused by their practices, organic soybean production would probably be more popular.

Not all differences between organic and non-organic soybean production are easy to quantify. For instance, organic farming helps maintain long-term yields and profitability by improving soil structure and water filtration.  

But we don’t have to quantify every environmental benefit to know that organic farming is preferable for people’s health and the environment. We already know organic foods have fewer pesticide residues, more nutrients and the ability to feed the world. Now we know that in the long run they’re cheaper to grow.

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