soybean field growth
With increasing soybean acreage and production, the Canadian industry needs to improve its protein levels as well as the perception of its soybeans in the global marketplace, according to panelists at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium.

“Western Canada has gone from having not optimal to better protein levels over time and we’re getting very close to the average U.S. protein,” said Jim Everson, executive director, Soy Canada. “Unless we get protein levels up, we’re likely to take discounts on international markets.”

Everson participated in a panel discussion at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, addressing what is on the horizon for Canadian soybeans.

Analyzing the availability of land in Western Canada suitable for soybean production and profitability of the crop led Soy Canada to an estimate of 10 million acres of soybeans by 2027, Everson said. That compares to 5.46 million acres in 2016.

A large boost in Western Canada — 6 million acres in 2027, up from 1.9 million acres now — will contribute significantly to the overall increase.

“We want to have a discussion with our community, the soybean industry, and our partners in the industry about how we meet these targets,” Everson said. “I don’t think we have all the answers; I just think our analysis gives us a good sense of what is possible.”

From that acreage, it is estimated production will reach 13 million tonnes nationally. Most — about 10.5 million tonnes — will be exported.

Protein content

Protein level is an issue because it speaks to the quality of soybeans and their attractiveness on the international market, Everson said. It is also an economic concern since lower protein levels can amount to a 20¢- to 40¢-per-bushel discount depending on the time of year, said Bo Hallborg, grain merchandiser with Viterra, Inc.

“To secure continued growth and acreage in western Canada, it’s important to improve the protein,” he said. “The protein level isn’t that bad compared to the U.S. It’s really just educating our export customers on our product.”

The goal is to have a protein content of 41.1% on a dry matter basis in Eastern Canada, up from 40.5% now, and 40.2% in Western Canada, up from 39.2% now, in the next 10 years. As soybeans have been bred for new traits, there has been a drop in protein levels, said Francois Labelle, executive director, Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers.

He also noted that first-time soybean growers see a drop in protein, but as they get more attune to growing them properly, the protein improves.

From the producer standpoint, increasing soybean acreage requires two things: agronomics and economics. Soybeans have been really profitable, and they are a relatively easy crop to grow.

“Producers like that,” Labelle said. “The new varieties have expanded the areas where they can be grown in Western Canada. The early maturing varieties are key.”

He said soybeans are still in a “honeymoon” period in Manitoba and haven’t seen a lot of disease pressure. However, as that changes, producers will have to pay more attention to crop rotation.

“It fits in fairly well in the rotation and the climate we have,” he said. “Soybeans grow well in the wet conditions we’ve had. Every year when we have the heavy rains in late May and June, a lot of other things drown out, but the soybeans keep growing.”

Export markets

China is going to be an important export market for anyone growing soybeans because its need is so large. China will import 94 million tonnes of soybeans this year, and will crush about 82 million tonnes, Hallborg said. That’s only a 55% utilization rate of its crush capacity.

“The growth potential in the Chinese marketplace is still massive, even with global acreage increasing,” he said.

Western Canadian soybeans are still working their way into the Chinese market. About half of the region’s 2 million tonnes of soybean production in 2016 went to the Chinese marketplace.

“It has been more or less forced; it’s not like China is coming to us pursuing Western Canadian soybeans,” Hallborg said. “The protein lacks, and we don’t have the clout some of the other origins do. Brazil has the clout with production of 115 million to 120 million tonnes, of which they’re going to export more than half.”

With enough acreage and solid protein levels, Hallborg said the possibility of a crush plant in Western Canada is a very real possibility. He estimates 4 million to 5 million acres of soybeans would be needed in the region before someone committed to building a sustainable crush plant.

“An interesting statistic to me is that about 600,000 to 700,000 tonnes of soy meal is imported into Canada per year,” he said. “That in and of itself is almost enough justification to build a crush plant. Once the acreage piece falls into our lap, it seems like it’s going to be a no brainer. I would be very surprised if someone doesn’t announce the construction of a crush plant in the next five years or so.”

The Soy Canada 10-year outlook also included growth of non-GM soybeans. Canada already has a successful, small production of non-GM soybeans that is food grade. It has just the right composition for such products as tofu and is sold to discriminating markets such as Japan, Everson said.

Current acreage is 1 million tonnes and is estimated to reach 1.25 million tonnes by 2027. Production now is about 1.25 million tonnes and could grow to 1.8 million tonnes in the next 10 years. 

||| Next page: Innovations in plant breeding opportunities, risk ||| 

Canada conference_Francois Labelle
Francois Labelle, left, said early maturing varieties are key to expanding production of the crop in Canada.

Innovations in plant breeding bring opportunities, risk

In the quest to grow crop yield, acreage and quality, scientists are turning to new plant breeding technologies such as genome editing, reverse breeding and grafting.

But several factors will be key to the success, including sharing of information, public support and environmental and sustainability concerns, according to a panel at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Conventional breeding has served the industry well and will remain the backbone of the industry, but it has limitations, said Francois Eudes, director, research, development and technology, Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture Agri-Food Canada. For one, it is limited by the genes within the species, there can be unwanted characteristics and it is a long process.

New methods, such as genome editing, can be used in conjunction with conventional breeding to deliver new products. Genome editing is more precise, reduces the risk of unanticipated traits and it’s much faster, Eudes said.

“It can be useful for reducing the effects of genes that limit productivity, aesthetics and nutrition,” he said. “We need to make sure the benefits and traits derived by the use of genome editing are shared across the value chain, but they should also address environmental concerns and sustainability.”

The technology should be made available to the various science providers and also developing countries. Novel plant breeding techniques can be beneficial for crops that are difficult to work with, or are lacking in technology, such as cassava, said Van Ripley, global breeding leader-healthy oil, Dow AgroSciences Canada.

Whereas the lines have been very clearly drawn globally in terms of what is acceptable in transgenics, the rules for novel plant breeding techniques are still up in the air, Ripley said. Argentina is the only nation that has formerly stated its policies for these novel approaches. It has said the techniques will not be uniquely regulated unless they result in novel products.

Otherwise it’s a mixed bag of potential policies ranging from no regulations to rules that are similar to the ones applied to transgenic crops.

“The rules are not defined so there is still a good opportunity for us to try to impact these decisions,” Ripley said.

The E.U. studied novel plant breeding techniques in 2007. A committee made its recommendation on seven methods in 2009, advising that regulation was not needed for products made from those methods. Since that time, the methods have been going through political review.

“It’s been in process since 2009; it’s starting to sound a little like the transgenic story again,” Ripley said.

Transparency, Eudes said, will be important in gaining support for these new types of technology from consumers.

It’s important to remember that today’s consumers are very informed and aware, said Ron DePauw, senior research advisor, SeCan Association. They are globally connected, and they have lost confidence in authority, he said.

In food and wellness, consumers want information, transparency, safety, wholesome nutrition and value for their money. DePauw said a paradigm shift is needed in corporate and government responsibility to society and disclosure of data and information; business confidential is no longer appropriate.

“If we want to get social license, we need to be very cognizant that the consumer is the one that is bearing a lot of the risk,” DePauw said. “They don’t necessarily know what that risk is, and to minimize the risk, they might buy organic. It’s not that it’s any safer, but they think it reduces their risk.”

There are lessons to be learned from transgenic crops and the struggle they’ve gone through in acceptance from the public and regulatory agencies.

First, the industry needs to clarify the message on why these novel plant breeding techniques are needed, Ripley said. The current discussion centers on the need to increase food production to feed a growing population.

However, in consumer surveys, increasing food production is not their major concern. Instead, they are concerned about food safety, food production sustainability, cost of food and protecting the natural environment.

“How do we change the narrative? How do we appeal to the things people are interested in?” Ripley said. “If we don’t take charge of the message and engage with the public, others will fill that void.”

He noted an article in France referring to novel plant breeding techniques as “hidden GMOs.”

“If we don’t get the message out there, others will do it for us,” he said.