Fewer breeding programs for non-GMO soybeans are reducing supplies despite strong demand.
As acreage of non-GMO soybeans decreases, finding seed varieties is increasingly a challenge. “In terms of non-GMO in general, there is less breeding,” says Jim Orf, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota.
With more than 90% of soybeans grown in the US genetically modified Roundup Ready varieties, most seed companies are breeding new varieties with the Roundup Ready trait.
Phasing out non-GMO varieties
Seed companies such as Monsanto and its subsidiaries are phasing out non-GMO varieties. “Private sector companies don’t work on food-grade varieties because the market is small,” Orf says. “It is also challenging for them to keep non-GMO pure.”
“Non-GMO soybean seed is getting harder to find. A lot of companies have exited that segment,” says Dan Jones, account manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred International.
Orf says much of the breeding work for non-GMO varieties is now done at state universities, such as the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, the University of Arkansas, and a few others.
Orf breeds non-GMO soybeans. About one-half of his work is on food-grade varieties. The rest focuses on creating disease resistance, drought tolerance, and other traits. “We’re trying to increase the diversity of soybean germplasm to prevent problems with disease,” he says.
While breeding continues, Orf says the distribution channels for non-GMO varieties have also decreased. “Independent seed dealers have affiliated with large companies,” Orf says.
High adoption of GMO due to lack of non-GMO
Non-GMO soybean suppliers report a shortage of non-GMO soybean seed. “We heard from other growers who said they couldn’t get non-GMO seed,” says Jim Skiff, president of US Soy. “There is getting to be less seed available.”
Klaas Martens, owner of Lakeview Organic Grain, believes the high adoption rates of genetically modified soybeans by farmers are “artificially engineered” because seed companies are shelving non-GMO varieties so farmers have no choice but to grow GM.
Skiff has even heard reports that Monsanto is telling its seed suppliers that they would not get Roundup Ready2 varieties when they become available if they continue selling non-GMO soybean seed.
Small companies breeding non-GMO varieties
Some small, private companies are breeding non-GMO varieties, Orf says. These include Schillinger Seed, Galena Genetics, Honda Trading, and D.F. Seeds.
“There are very few people breeding non-GMO soybeans besides me,” says John Diehl, president, D.F. Seeds.
Many suppliers of non-GMO soybeans develop and distribute their own varieties to farmers they contract for production. These include US Soy, Citizens, LLC in the US and Huron Commodities and Hendrick Seeds in Canada, to name just a few.
Bruce Wymer, director of the food-grade soybean program at Citizens, says he has a committed group of farmers that produce non-GMO soybeans. “We have a good following of non-GMO guys.”
Despite the challenges with seed, there are positive signs. Orf says the strong demand for organic will help keep non-GMO breeding programs viable. “With the interest in organic, there will be a need for non-GMO material for organic,” he says.
Also, at least two major companies, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta Canada, remain committed to producing non-GMO soybean seed.
“We have made a commitment to producing conventional soybeans as long as the market demand is there,” says Jones.
“We are the only major seed company in Canada that has a breeding program for non-GMO soybeans,” says Don McClure, a representative with Syngenta Canada. “It is a good market for us, and one we want to stay in.”
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report July/August 2008.