Survey finds many non-GMO food soybean seed breeding programs

By Ken Roseboro

There are many active programs committed to developing new non-GMO food soybeans at public universities and small private seed companies in the United States.

This was a key finding of a recent survey titled “2010 Analysis of the U.S. Non-GMO Food Soybean Variety Pipeline,” conducted by Dr. Jill Miller-Garvin, Dr. James H. Orf, and Dr. Seth L. Naeve of the University of Minnesota. Funding was provided by the US Soybean Export Council.

The survey found that public and private non-GMO food soybean breeding programs are increasing in size and scope, and are developing a variety of food soybeans that can be grown in a wide range of geographic regions.

Public non-GMO soybean breeding efforts are conducted at US agricultural universities, such as the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and the University of Tennessee, and at the US Department of Agriculture. Private non-GMO breeding efforts are underway at companies such as Schillinger Genetics and Harmony Agricultural Products of Ohio.

Expanding the possibilities for food soybean production

One reason for conducting the survey was to address reports that there are fewer non-GMO soybean breeding programs—and fewer non-GMO varieties available to farmers—because major seed companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer are focusing on developing genetically modified soybeans.

Recent US Department of Agriculture figures show that 93% of soybeans grown in the US are GM.

The survey’s goal was to assess public and private soybean breeding programs in the US and compile information about non-GMO food soybean seed variety development, including varieties released in 2009 and 2010 and those slated for release in the next 3-5 years.

The survey aimed to identify and list each new non-GMO soybean variety and other information such as maturity group, end-use application, yield, protein, oil, seed size, hilum color, availability of commercial seed production, and supply of grain for export.

Farmers grow non-GMO food soybeans because they can earn premium prices from food markets and don’t have to pay “technology fees” to Monsanto as farmers do for GM seed.

Food soybeans are used to make tofu, soymilk, miso, natto, and other soyfood products.

Strong commitment to non-GMO breeding

Survey responses found that several public breeders already have an increased emphasis on non-GMO variety of development. Most of the respondents said they plan to increase breeding efforts toward non-GMO soybeans in the next five years.

Traits targeted for development in new seed varieties include disease resistance, higher protein, oil, low phytate, high yield, and general seed improvement.

Some public breeders said they plan to increase the use of molecular marker or “marker assisted” breeding, a form of biotechnology that enhances the efficiency of traditional plant breeding without the use of genetic engineering.

One public breeder said, “We are beginning to discover genomic regions that govern seed protein, amino acids, oil, fatty acids, and other traits.”

Survey authors said the most important finding was that there has been an increase in variety development for non-GMO food soybeans. They also found a strong commitment among public soybean breeders to devote resources and efforts to developing non-GMO soybeans.

Small seed companies focusing on non-GMO

Among private seed companies, the survey found that smaller companies plan to expand their non-GMO soybean breeding efforts while larger companies had either modest or no plans to expand.

The smaller companies expressed enthusiasm for improving both the agronomic performance and compositional traits—increased protein, better taste, higher yield, and decreased anti-nutritional components—of non-GMO soybeans.

Private seed companies are expanding the geographic range over which food soybeans can be grown. They are also using molecular markers to improve the efficiency of breeding efforts, allowing them to select the traits they want, while reducing the time required to develop new varieties.

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, September 2010)