Production and global demand

WORLD SOYBEAN RESEARCH CONFERENCE

the ninth edition of the World Soybean Research Conference was held in Durban, South Africa in February. The conference brought together leading researchers and agriculture representatives from all over the world, including China, India, Brazil, Argentina, the United States, and Europe. The Canadian Soybean Council supported the attendance of three Canadians at this leading international soybean research event: Meghan Moran, Research Coordinator, Grain Farmers of Ontario; Mario Tenuta, a soil ecologist at the University of Manitoba; and Louise O’Donoughue, a soybean breeder at CÉROM in Quebec.

The theme of the conference was, “From China to Africa, can research close the gap between production and increasing global demand?”. This is not merely a hypothetical question, but a real problem that needs to be addressed. Soybean production across the world has nearly doubled in the last 20 years; but a growing middle class is continuing to increase the demand beyond current supplies.

Thomas Mielke, the director of the German oilseed forecasting group, Oil World, outlined the many factors at play in soybean supply in his opening address. Extreme weather events, commodity prices, loss of land under production, and limitations in infrastructure in certain high producing countries, to name a few, will all impact soybean supply. However, research also plays an important role in increasing the worldwide quantity of soybeans.

increasing yields
Li Juan Qiu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, presented the current status of research in China. Their breeding program has tens of thousands of breeding lines and has a great deal of genetic diversity in their germplasm. They are able to produce many specialty traits such as coloured and small seeded varieties, and are looking at wild soybean, Glycine soja, for advantageous genes not found in the cultivated soybean, Glycine max. Juan Qiu admitted that in China, in spite of successful research, they are seeing a gap between yield potential and production. Average soybean yields in China fall below the world’s average yield, which may reflect the need for extension support on the many small farms across the country.

In North America, the reciprocal may be true; on-farm agronomics are advanced compared to many other countries, but we may be dealing with a narrower genetic base. “Approximately 65 percent of the genetic base in varieties for maturity groups 000-II in North America can be traced back to five ancestors” stated Chris Grainger, referencing a 1994 study by Gizlice et al. Grainger, from the University of Guelph, has studied the members of OAC Bayfield’s pedigree to identify molecular markers in which genetic diversity has been severely eroded, and to create breeding tools that aid in the selection of ideal parental combinations for crossing.

the roll of genetics
Looking back on some popular American soybean varieties, Brian Diers from the University of Illinois planted public and private varieties from the 1920’s through to present day varieties to determine how much yield gain is due to genetics. Diers found that new varieties have lower protein and higher oil content, but produce more biomass overall and are better able to tolerate stress. We know that early planting can increase yields, and Diers has shown that new varieties are better able to utilize the early planting through a longer duration of the reproductive growth period; they flower earlier but mature later. But Diers also noted that “the national (US) average yield is increasing by 0.34 bushels per acre each year, but genetic gains made today are derived from a lot more research than in the past.”

Another University of Guelph researcher, Dominique Bureau, provided some insight into the role soybeans play in farmed fish, one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Over 300 species are raised in aquaculture, and over 31 million tonnes of fish are produced annually from soy-based feeds. Soy meal is incorporated at five to 40 percent by weight into fish feed; soy oil, protein concentrate and lecithin are also important components of fish feed. The amount of fish meal in their diets is down to five percent or less.

The conference included panel discussions on biotechnology and sustainability. The panel had strong opinions supporting biotechnology, and it was made clear that farmers from the US, Italy, Portugal and England feel that incorporation of biotechnology traits into their farming systems allows, or would allow, them to reduce pesticide applications and address soil health concerns by implementing diverse crop rotations and no-till. Gabriella Cruz, a farmer from Portugal, says there is a high erosion risk in her area so no-till is very important, but they struggle with weeds and she “needs glyphosate tolerant crops to be able to carry on with conservation agriculture practices”.

The United Soybean Board hopes to help ease biotechnology concerns by investing in education, according to Rick Stern, a farmer from the US. They have started courses for journalism students on writing about biotechnology, as well as a high school course on agriculture.

Discussions on sustainability seem to indicate that Ontario farmers are ahead of the curve. Most of the sustainable on-farm practices discussed at the conference are already commonplace here, such as no-till, integrated pest management (IPM) approaches, diverse rotations, and limited irrigation. There are no ‘silver bullets’, but with the continued development of genetics and research into systems approaches to IPM and crop management we can improve our sustainability and continue to address environmental concerns. •