Stephen Censky is chief executive officer of the American Soybean Association. He is in his second stint, having served as CEO for 21 years before serving as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2017 to 2020.
Before first coming to ASA he was a legislative assistant for Sen. Jim Abdnor, R-S.D. Later he served in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations at USDA, where he was involved in the nation’s ag export programs.
He received a degree in agriculture from South Dakota State University and a post graduate diploma from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He grew up on a soybean, corn and diversified livestock farm near Jackson, Minnesota. He and his wife, Carmen, have two daughters.
Censky spoke about ASA and agriculture in general in a recent interview with IFT.
IFT: What is ASA’s goal regarding marketing?
CENSKY: We export about 50% of soybeans produced in the United States. A big part of our policy is to try to expand market access around the world for soybeans and soybean products. We have a two-fold strategy when it comes to developing markets. We’re working to develop brand-new markets. I liken it to being a prospector, going out into markets that show promise but aren’t a customer yet. We’re involved in soy foods, livestock, poultry and fish production.
IFT: Soybeans are generally seen in the United States as a source of livestock feed, but there are also human food uses. How is that market developing?
CENSKY: We see that tremendously in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. We’re excited about rising demand for vegetable protein. Plant-based protein is good. Still, our livestock customers are No. 1. About 90% of domestic use of the protein portion of the soybean is going to livestock production and 10% for human use.
IFT: Over the years there has been interest in soy in aquaculture. Where are we in that area today?
CENSKY: It is growing. One of the things we’re working on as a policy institution is expansion of opportunities for aquaculture in the United States. Over 90% is imported. We would love to expedite permitting of aquaculture farms in territorial waters of the United States.
Overseas, aquaculture is a big business. Soy-formulated fish food is in countries throughout the world. We do see potential for growth in the U.S. American diets are changing. We see tremendous potential there in growth of soy in aquaculture.
IFT: How is the soybean industry poised for the renewable energy push and use of biodiesel?
CENSKY: We’re seeing growing demand for biodiesel, renewable diesel and, in the future, sustainable aviation fuel. While there’s a lot of talk on the gasoline engine side of things for electric vehicles, for heavy-duty vehicles — trucks, buses and jet airplanes — we are going to be relying on the internal combustion engine and biodiesel power for decades to come. We think that’s a great opportunity. We’ve been giving that message to Congress and the administration about home-grown, environmentally friendly fuel that is sustainable.
IFT: The growth over the past few decades of soybean production in Brazil and Argentina has changed the marketing landscape globally. How are American soybean growers positioned to compete with South America?
CENSKY: They’re going to continue to be formidable competitors. Our job is to keep on expanding demand so it benefits U.S. growers, such as new uses here domestically. We’re very excited about demand we’re seeing for the oil portion of the soybean which is driving crush expansion in the United States. There is expansion of existing plants and building of new plants. Capacity is likely to increase by 30% over the next several years. That’s exciting. That provides an improving basis for farmers and will benefit our livestock producers.
IFT: GMO crops such as Roundup Ready soybeans have met with resistance in some areas, especially in Europe. Do you believe such opposition will wane?
CENSKY: The current food situation worldwide actually spurs that. When you have lots of food, you have lots of problems. When you don’t have much food you have only one problem. People are more willing to accept biotech. The other thing we’ve been seeing and pushing under previous administration and under Tom Vilsack’s leadership is innovation. In order to meet our world’s twin challenges of meeting population and addressing changing climate we need innovation, and that includes biotechnology.
IFT: Moving soybeans efficiently is obviously an important component of profitability. Some of that was addressed when Congress passed an infrastructure bill. How will that affect trade?
CENSKY: We would like to see modernization of the lock-and-dam system and ports. It’s the thing that has kept us competitive. We were very pleased (about the infrastructure legislation). ASA fought hard and pushed for Congress to pass the bipartisan infrastructure act. That is going to pay dividends for decades to come.