The soybean breeding program at the University of Missouri is unlike any other in the country. Not only is it delivering genetically-superior varieties that will keep soybeans competitive against other commodity oils in the long term, its research is designed and managed to address the needs of soybean growers in two completely different regions and growing environments.
“When I was hired, the program was thought of as being a northern and southern program, but I like to think of it as a Delta and a Midwestern Program,” said Andrew Scaboo, assistant research professor at the University of Missouri who handles the Midwestern side of the program as he described it to the growers attending his soybean tour at the 54th Annual Fisher Delta Research Center Field Day in Portageville, Mo.
As a soybean breeder, Scaboo realizes he is in the catbird’s seat when it comes to honing his craft, because he works closely with Grover Shannon, emeritus professor, a man many consider a living legend in the world of soybean breeding and research.
“Grover and the farmers in the Delta region deal with diseases like root-knot nematodes and frogeye. They have precision-graded fields and furrow irrigation and everything is grown on beds. We grow our soybeans on heavy clay pan soils and use different management practices,” said Scaboo.
While there may be some program overlap, the two soybean breeders further delineate their research by the soybean maturity groups on which they concentrate —Shannon focusing on early mid-4s to late-5s and Scaboo channeling his efforts on early mid-3s to early mid-4s.
In 1980, less than 10 percent of soybean varieties planted in the U.S. came from private sector seed companies. By 1997, that number had exploded to 90 percent thanks to the adoption of Roundup Ready soybeans.
Grower adoption of the Roundup technology played a role in that growth, but the larger impetus for that change was early 1980s legislation that allowed the patenting of living organisms. By the mid-80s, that patent was extended to plants, and from that point, seed companies started investing millions of dollars in variety and trait development because they knew they would reap return on their substantial research investments.
“When that legislation passed, a ‘plant variety’ and a ‘bio-tech event’ became protected proprietary products, so it was understandably off to the research races for the seed companies,” adds Scaboo.
Growers adopted these new tools because they recognized the potential for increasing yields. It allowed them to farm easier — saving them time and providing for efficient weed control. Today, Shannon and Scaboo are increasing yields not through bio-technology, but also through genetics.
There has been no bio-tech trait released in the last three decades that has increased yield from a genetic standpoint. Yield increases today are coming from conventional breeding efforts, making forward crosses, and new genetic combinations.
“Today, this is where Grover and I are focused. We don’t have the time or money to invest in a new biotech trait, so we’re conducting research on over 40,000 research plots across six locations in Missouri every year to create higher-yielding varieties,” said Scaboo, who along with Shannon operates one of the largest public soybean breeding programs in the entire country.
The University of Missouri is a land grant university system with a mission to educate the next generation of leaders, scientists, and breeders who will thrive in other public programs. Scaboo explained this mission to the attending farmers by saying, “You may even have children and/or grandchildren attending the university who graduate and go on to become successful professionals who will collectively raise the socio-economic level of our entire state.”
About three months ago, the University of Missouri was awarded a patent for the development of a high-oleic soybean variety. Shannon and Kristin Bilyeu discovered two non-functional genes that increased the amount of oleic acid in a soybean.
“This is the same trait that Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer have in one of their varieties, but they used a transgenic event to create their high-oleic soybean. Drs. Shannon and Bilyeu discovered the two ‘non-transgenic genes’ that delivered the same profile,” said Scaboo.
High-oleic soybean oil is more stable and has increased functionality that food and industrial processors are finding invaluable. The soybean industry has set a goal of having 18 million planted acres of high-oleic soybeans by 2023.
“When I was a kid, bought a bag of Fritos and looked at the ingredients, it listed hydrogenated soybean oil. It was in hundreds of snack foods, but in the mid-90s, the Food and Drug Administration mandated that food processors had to list the amount of ‘trans-fats’ on product containers and packaging. After that, the huge push for ‘zero trans-fat’ foods began,” said Scaboo.
From that moment moving forward, demand for hydrogenated soy oil started sinking. Some estimate demand for soybean oil has dropped by 30 percent. Today, canola or palm oil has taken over some of soybean oil’s market share.
“These other oils are a direct competitor to you,” said Scaboo, as he pointed to the soybean farmers in front of him. “With the discovery and subsequent patent of this new trait, we will now be able to provide to you a high-oleic soybean variety whose oil won’t have to be hydrogenated by commercial food processors,” he said.
In addition to being “heart healthy,” Shannon explained how it can be used multiple times, and even has the diverse capability of being used in the lubricant products market. While the new variety will not help soybean growers control resistant weeds, or yield 100 bushels an acre, it will do something very important from a long-term perspective.
“This will be the first variety to infiltrate the market that will keep your soybeans competitive against other oils — at a competitive price — in no small part to the high-oleic acid content in the soybean,” said Scaboo.
The researchers’ phones are starting to ring with inquiries from corporations like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Archer-Daniels Midland, Co.
“They have an interest. They’re asking questions and liking what we’re telling them,” said Shannon.
The patent of this technology not only covers the two discovered genes, but the method used in pairing those genes that delivers the high-oleic soybean.
“One good thing about our process is that we didn’t have to spend millions of dollars to get our trait approved like the bigger seed companies must do. Another good thing is we won’t have to charge you $80 a bag for it. We might be able to sell it to you for between $25 and $40 a bag, and you’ll get the same in-field performance,” said Shannon to the soybean growers in attendance.
“To date, this is one of the biggest game-changers in my career as a soybean breeder. I can see half of the soybean acres in the U.S. over the next 30 years having this high-oleic trait in them. That will keep soybeans competitive not only here, but around the globe,” said Scaboo.