eMerge Genetics launches “non-GMO revolution”

Company aims to develop high-quality soybean varieties for food use, meet growing demand for non-GMO soybeans in US and overseas

With major seed companies phasing out non-GMO soybean seed in favor of genetically modified varieties, one company recently emerged to help fill the void for farmers who want to grow non-GMO. Schillinger Genetics, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, is focusing on developing and distributing high-quality, non-GMO food-grade soybean seed varieties under its recently introduced eMerge genetics brand.

With more than 92% of soybeans grown in the US now Monsanto’s GM varieties, John Schillinger, president of Schillinger Genetics, says many farmers want alternatives. “Farmers get nervous about having only one technology to choose from. They need alternatives and value to help their bottom line. We want to offer non-GMO alternatives”

Passion for food soybeans

John Schillinger has a wealth of experience—more than 40 years—in soybean breeding. Interestingly, he helped to develop the first Roundup Ready soybean varieties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1999, he left a position as president of Asgrow Seed Company to breed food-grade soybeans for the soyfoods market.

“My vision and passion was to develop soybeans for food use,” Schillinger says.

In 2000, Schillinger founded Heartland Fields, LLC, a soyfoods company. His work with Heartland Fields provided a good connection to and understanding of the food industry. “My experience gave me the opportunity to connect with food companies and understand their soybean product needs,” Schillinger says.

Online networking

Schillinger has continued developing food-grade soybean varieties, and last December he launched eMerge Genetics as a way to link food manufacturers with seed distributors, grain handlers, and farmers.

eMerge’s website allows farmers to search for premium prices growing non-GMO soybeans, locate seed distributors in their area, and find contact information for locations seeking eMerge seed. Grain handlers and food manufacturers can work together to find needed acres of a specific non-GMO soybean variety they need and post opportunities for farmers within specific regions. The site even has a “GMO vs. Non-GMO Value Calculator” that allows farmers to compare the costs for growing the two different types of soybeans. The online service is free.

“This is a new marketing concept and has the potential to help all parties,” Schillinger says. “We are still building the network, but we’re off to a good start.”

Non-GMO varieties

The key to eMerge’s success will be its non-GMO soybean seed varieties. eMerge offers three categories of varieties. The first is a clear hilum, medium level protein soybean, such as 389F.YC, used to make soyfoods such as tofu and soymilk. “This is as good a yielding soybean as any in the market,” Schillinger says. The second category is a dark hilum variety that is 15% to 20% higher in protein than commodity soybeans, making them good for snack foods, tofu, or soymilk. The third category is ultra low linolenic soybean varieties used to make cooking healthier oils. eMerge works with Asoyia, LLC, a company producing low linolenic soybean oil for the food industry.

Farmers grow the non-GMO varieties in southern and central Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, areas near major rivers, which are used to transport soybeans to buyers in export markets, such as Japan.

New variety development is a major focus at eMerge. “We are continually pushing the lever back on variety development and field performance,” Schillinger says.

In addition to Schillinger, eMerge’s research team includes vice president of research Bill Rhodes, who has 30 years of soybean breeding experience.

eMerge’s research team uses marker assisted breeding (MAB), a non-transgenic biotechnology breeding method, to develop new soybean varieties. MAB allows breeders to map genes and identify the traits they want to express. “It’s a marvelous tool. It allows us to quickly make decisions on agronomic performance and yield,” Schillinger says.

New soybean varieties in the pipeline include high-yielding varieties that can be used for both food and feed and low saturated fat soybeans and mid-oleic soybeans to make healthier cooking oils.

Growing demand for non-GMO

Schillinger sees increasing interest among farmers to grow non-GMO soybeans. “Farmers are looking at higher input costs with the Roundup Ready technology, and they will continually search for tools that will help their bottom line.”

A big incentive to help farmers’ bottom lines is attractive premiums paid to grow non-GMO soybeans.

In addition, Schillinger says more weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup herbicide, making weed control more difficult and expensive.

Schillinger expects farmers with small- to medium-sized farms to be especially attracted to growing non-GMO varieties.

eMerge is investing its future in non-GMO soybeans. “We’re investing in research to fill the need for non-GMO varieties that perform as well as GM and are offered at a good price,” Schillinger says.

He sees a bright future for non-GMO soybeans. “I’m counting on it. There is a big enough market and opportunities in other countries, such as Japan, to help us succeed.”

© Copyright May 2009, The Organic & Non-GMO Report