Friday, 24 August 2012

Reading Between the Soybean Lines

The news release is virtually unintelligible... example:  "The Harper Government fully supports moving research innovation from the lab to the marketplace so it can benefit farmers, producers, and the Canadian economy. This project will test soybean varieties developed during ECODA's 2010 Eastern Canada Oilseed Development Initiative, which received $3.2 million from AAFC's Developing Innovative Agri-Products (DIAP) Initiative, bringing these new varieties closer to marketability."

You can have a go at the whole thing here:

Anyway, this is really good news, and it's what's NOT said in the press release that may be the most important thing of all.

Essentially a number of soybean varieties will be tested not just for their suitability in the normally cooler, shorter-season climate of Eastern Canada, but for the colour, taste, texture etc. of the beans themselves according to the customers in the all important Japanese market.  What's not stated in the release is that the Japanese only want non-gmo soybeans. You may say so what, but consider this. More than 85% of the soybeans grown in the United States are gmo's, designed to tolerate the use of herbicides produced by the same agri-chemical giants like Monsanto,  that supply the soybean seed.  The fierce debate over the safety and environmental impact of genetically modified food continues (written a lot about it in this blog, there's a search window at the bottom, and of course lots elsewhere). What this new research means is that farmers growing these soybean varieties don't have to be in the pockets of the big agri-chemical companies, giving PEI a little more breathing room to decide if it wants to be GMO free.  But there's something else that's just as important. "Round-up Ready" soybeans are by far the most widely used soybean seed in North America, so much so that the active ingredient in Round-up, glyphosphate, is no longer effective on so called "super-weeds". It's a victim of its own success, and the ability of pests of all kinds to adapt to the over-use of pesticides.  So for every field of non-gmo soybeans planted here, it gives glyphosphate, a relatively safe and effective herbicide, a chance to be useful  for one more day.

That's not to say that sophistictated bio-engineering techniques won't play a role in this plant breeding. Scientists will be looking for genetic markers for the variety characteristics the Japanese want.  The bottom line: researchers will use conventional plant breeding techniques, crossing one variety with another, what humans have been doing for thousands of years,  but armed with much better knowledge of what a variety  brings to the table, and whether this characteristic has been passed on to the new variety.  It will make the plant breeding much more effective and quicker to get results.

So it's not surprising that the Harper Government isn't bragging about supporting research into non-GMO crops,  and really if there is a group of people to thank it's discriminating Japanese consumers who continue to insist they don't want GMO's in their food supply. So Monsanto et al get to sit on the sidelines, while PEI farmers grow profitable non-GMO crops for a wealthy market. That's good news all around.

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