The U.S. transportation system has been providing U.S. soybean farmers with a competitive advantage in the global market. U.S. soybean farmers rely on a network of aging infrastructure – a highway system nearly half a century old, railways that date from the late 1800s, and a lock-and-dam system with many components well past their 50-year usable lifespan.

A recent study funded by the United Soybean Board’s (USB’s) and soy checkoff’s Global Opportunities (GO) program supports the growing evidence that U.S. agriculture’s advantage continues to be threatened by the deterioration of U.S. highways, bridges, rails, locks and dams. The study, “Farm to Market – A Soybean’s Journey,” analyzes how U.S. soy and other agricultural products move from the farm gate to customers, highlighting weaknesses found in the system along the way.

“The entire transportation network has been vital to the U.S. soy industry, not only in moving our product to domestic processors but also in delivering U.S. soy to our international customers,” says Dale Profit, soybean farmer from Van Wert, Ohio, and USB director. “We need to protect this advantage if United States soy is going to remain the preferred source for soy throughout the world.”

The U.S. inland waterway system remains a precarious leg of a soybean’s journey. The deteriorating lock system remains at risk of failure and dredging needs to be done to encompass new larger ships that will be possible with the expansion of the Panama Canal, due to open in late 2014. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the responsibility to maintain a depth of 45 feet on the lower Mississippi River, but, due to funding issues, has not been able to dredge to maintain an adequate navigable channel, limiting ships to 42-foot draft, meaning the vessel holds fewer soybeans. If U.S. waterways cannot accommodate these larger ships, the U.S. soy industry may not be able to capitalize on the potential advantages that the expanded Panama Canal will offer. The checkoff-funded study also shows that limiting the volume of soy that can be in one shipment could lead to higher freight costs.

The U.S. railway network has also been under pressure especially as more U.S. soy makes its way to China. The industry has seen an increase in rail movement from the western Soybean Belt to the Pacific Northwest. In 2009-2010, 68 percent of U.S. soybeans traveling by rail ended their journey in the Pacific Northwest. The study predicts that China’s demand for U.S. soybeans will continue to grow, doubling by 2020-2021, increasing the pressure on this mode of U.S. transportation.

The soy-checkoff-funded study shows improvements to the transportation infrastructure could make the movement of U.S. soybeans and other agricultural products more efficient, totaling  expected cost savings to U.S. soybean and grain industries of $145.9 million annually, according to the study.

U.S. farmers wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from improved infrastructure. Several U.S. industries remain fully dependent on oilseeds and grain. These industries annually provide 1.5 million jobs and more than $352 billion in U.S. output, $41 billion in labor earnings and $74 billion in value added on to the U.S. economy.

“Brazil has several proposed infrastructure projects that haven’t been completed yet,” adds Profit. “If those improvements are made in Brazil, it would put them on par with U.S. soybean farmers as far as transportation costs, and we would lose that advantage.”