Soybean cyst nematode and white mould are two problematic diseases in many parts of Ontario, where most counties have confirmed infections. In eastern parts of the province and western Quebec, white mould is an almost perennial issue for growers and can appear in hot spots in southern regions as well.
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The two diseases can be especially troublesome in food-grade soybeans, where competition for export markets is robust and comprises 25 to 30 per cent of total production in Ontario and Quebec.
Why it matters: Varieties resistant to soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and white mould could help Ontario growers meet the export potential of IP soybeans into overseas markets.
Istvan Rajcan, a soybean breeder at the University of Guelph, is in the final year of a three-year program to develop higher-yielding, disease-resistant, food-grade soybeans for Ontario. Funding is coming from the Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a collaborative venture of the University of Guelph and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The program began in May 2021 and will finish in April 2024.
Private sector seed companies typically release new varieties with a lifespan of two to six years but food-grade soybean varieties generally have a longer run with food manufacturers and buyers, mostly because of quality demands.
“The replacement of GM varieties by the private sector is frequent and fast but I’m not sure how deliberate that is,” says Rajcan. “In our case, the IP market is a little different in that a lot of the IP soybeans produced in Canada are exported to Asian and other foreign markets, and once an IP variety gets a name based on its food-grade qualities, the buyers tend to keep asking for the same. They like to work with what they know.”
Finding the right genes
Although it’s a three-year project, Rajcan said he won’t have high-yielding food-grade varieties with nematode and white mould resistance ready to commercialize by next year.
The funding allows his team to use molecular markers to find resistance genes faster. Rajcan notes there are two major genes for cyst nematode and one recently discovered major gene for white mould.
“They’re not in the same variety, so I need to take a high-yielding soybean variety that has no resistance to either disease and first cross it with a source of SCN resistance to incorporate those two major genes,” he adds.
“In the next round of crosses, which could come years later, I have to bring in the gene for white mould resistance into that same OAC variety that became SCN-resistant. In some instances, a variety resistant to SCN has been crossed to one resistant to white mould already.”
That takes years to develop, and they don’t cover the spectrum of resistance to the two diseases. Minor genes are also required.
“We still need those minor genes to contribute to higher levels of resistance,” says Rajcan. “The more genes one works with, the longer it takes to bring them all together. We call that gene pyramiding, where we’re building a variety that’s high-yielding, resistant to white mould and SCN and other stresses.”
The industry perspective
The food-grade sector is always looking for export opportunities. For Brian Innes, the focus for food grade soybeans is a delicate balance between maintaining competitiveness in the market and working to enhance quality parameters in future varieties.
“As an organization and as an industry, we are focused on how we maintain and improve the competitiveness of food-grade soybean genetics for farmers,” says Innes, executive director of Soy Canada.
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“The fit for Istvan’s research is helping address key diseases with genetics to ensure we’re keeping up with commodity GM soybeans.”
Unlike traited soybeans, demands for quality and consistency, balanced against the farmer’s need for profitability, redefine how quickly food-grade soybean varieties can be commercialized. Successful varieties need to deliver end-use quality and be accepted by buyers, as well as perform well for farmers .
“The competitiveness of food-grade varieties for farmers is important for us to work on collectively, as an industry and as Soy Canada, and how we support our seed companies and exporters,” says Innes.
“By helping to increase the speed of adoption of new varieties which bring new agronomic traits, such as resistance that Istvan is working on, is a major priority for the industry to maintain and grow our food-grade specialty acres.”