Success in satisfying buyers
November 30, 1999 By Rosalie I. Tennison
When genetically modified (GM) soybeans were introduced, the industry went wild, but not all international buyers were equally enthusiastic. Instead, some, such as Japan, closed their markets to GM soybeans and went looking for conventional varieties with desirable traits. Gradually, the industry settled into two camps: GM and non-GM, and growers chose the camp they wanted to supply.
At first it was not clear if Canada’s breeding programs would be able to adjust to the changes. Not surprisingly, the breeders were, and are, adaptable and many are successful at developing what the market needs. The public breeders are focusing on food grade soybeans and some of the private breeders are filling a need for GM varieties; there are a few who do a little of both. “There is an opportunity to capitalize on transgenic varieties, but farmers need to be aware of their costs to grow GM versus the traditional food grade varieties,” comments Marc Ham, the director of international marketing for Semences Prograin in Quebec. “Japan imports 1.2 million tonnes of food grade soybeans each year and China is now importing oilseed varieties, so there are markets available for both types.” However, he continues, because each market is different, breeders and companies selling to these countries need to be aware of what each wants and breed varieties accordingly. Other countries that import Canada’s soybeans fall somewhere between China and Japan in terms of their needs.
By far, Japan is Canada’s largest market for food grade soybeans, and breeders are challenged to stay in tune with that country’s particular needs, further challenging the breeders to understand those needs and meet them. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) breeding program at Harrow, Ontario, focuses on Japan and other Pacific Rim countries that prefer non-GM varieties. “Harrow has developed a reputation for producing premium-quality, high-protein, large-seeded food grade soybeans, such as Harovinton, the industry standard for nearly two decades,” explains Dr. Vaino Poysa, the AAFC soybean breeder at Harrow. For tofu and miso, however, they are now looking at breeding for slightly smaller seed size and lower protein. “We may have to sacrifice a little on seed size in order to push the yield up, but we are compromising by pushing up the quality of the protein.” He boasts that Harrow has one of the best facilities for analysing tofu and miso type soybeans in North America. He works closely with the Canadian Soybean Exporters’ Association to learn what the Japanese buyers are looking for, and then promising varieties are tested to see if the quality matches the desires of the buyers. If it does, the seed is released. With this system, it appears the Canadian breeders are always on the cutting edge of variety development.
Public program commendable
Dr. Istvan Rajcan is a soybean breeder at the University of Guelph, upholding the tradition of excellence established in the 1970s when the program was initiated. He says about 100 varieties have been released from the University of Guelph and the majority have been non-GM food grade, although the program is developing some GM varieties. “Our biggest market for Ontario-grown non-GM soybeans is Japan,” he says. “We have been able to build a solid reputation there for providing high-quality soybeans. We work closely with buyers to develop the types of qualities they want.” OAC Kent, released by the Guelph program, is a success story in the breeding world and, nine years after its release, it is considered a standard because of its high and stable yield and higher-than-average protein, which makes it very good for tofu.
Canadian breeders are carving out a niche in the world soybean market and that is largely due to identity preservation of the varieties and the attention to breeding what buyers want. Ham says that in the US, the same variety can be released under many names, which can be confusing for growers and buyers. “In Canada it is one variety, one name,” he says.
Rajcan concurs with Ham’s assessment of why Canadian food grade soybeans are more welcome in world markets. “We still have a strict variety registration process in Canada, which the United States doesn’t,” he says. “Our seed and crop purity rules are appreciated by buyers of identity preserved Canadian soybeans.”
But how do breeders know what properties they should be breeding for? Poysa says that at any given time, he has many varieties exhibiting various traits in his program as he tries to anticipate what the market may want next. It can take as many as 10 years or more to get a promising variety to growers, which means, if a buyer asks for a trait that is not prominent in existing varieties, it cannot be developed in a short period. Some programs have arrangements to grow seed in Argentina or Chile during Canada’s winter, which speeds the breeding process by six months each year.
Staying ahead of what is wanted in the marketplace is the biggest challenge for breeders. “The best a breeder can do is keep their eyes and ears open, and network with buyers and processors of seed to know what they want,” concedes Rajcan. “We generally work with a number of traits combined with high yield as a given.” He says tastes change and breeders adapt. He adds that with food grade soybeans, high protein is important, but buyers who used to want 45 percent protein now want 43 percent. He says in his program, varieties are maintained with various levels of protein in the event that the protein requirement is changed to 42 or even 40 percent.
“We have been plant breeding at Prograin since 1986,” says Ham. “All our breeds come from our breeders using greenhouses and winter nurseries in Argentina. We have many programs underway, each focusing on a particular trait that is needed for the intended use.” In this way, he says, Prograin is able to satisfy customers and produce seed with desired traits. His is one of the few private companies that stuck with breeding programs for food grade soybeans when other companies began to focus on GM varieties.
It would be a generalization to suggest that private companies breed GM varieties and public programs focus on food grade because there is some crossover. It is possible that what drives any given program is the customer base that supports what is being developed. “My breeding program is driven by the Japanese market,” says Poysa. “Whatever Japan prefers is often followed by other Pacific Rim countries. There really is no single Japanese market; it’s complex with a variety of end uses.”
Ham agrees. He says he spends a good deal of time with his Japanese buyers because he believes that building relationships is important in keeping a market. “The Japanese love Canada and all things Canadian and, when they become long-term friends, they are very loyal,” he adds. Ham also points out the Japanese like the small field size common in Eastern Canada because they can see the entire crop under development.
With other countries such as the US and Argentina looking north to Canada’s success in the food grade soybean market, breeders understand that they can never relax, that they must continue to strive to satisfy the needs of the marketplace. But, ultimately, according to Rajcan, the goal is to improve the crop for Canadian growers. He adds that giving farmers the tools they need to get an adequate premium on contracts to grow soybeans for Japan is an ongoing challenge as each breeding program finds its niche and provides Canada’s best customer with the quality soybeans it wants.