Non-GM soybean market requires more acres

In 2017, farmers in Ontario and Quebec planted around four million acres of soybeans. About 25 percent of the beans, or one million acres, were non-genetically modified.

Those soybeans are designated as food grade and are used to make products such as soy milk and tofu. Non-GMO, or identity preserved (IP) soybeans, are a huge industry in Eastern Canada because numerous companies buy, process and export them.

In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, however, food grade soybeans are almost non-existent.

The Western Producer couldn’t find official statistics on acres of food-grade soybeans in Western Canada, but it’s safe to assume that the number is small.

“It is generally accepted that Saskatchewan is virtually 100 percent GMO soybeans,” said Jason McNaughton, IP soybean marketing manager with Hensall Co-op in Ontario.

“Manitoba does have some non-GMO production but is extremely limited, and I would estimate it is less than one percent of the acres grown.”

If it is one percent, Manitoba would have 19,000 acres of food grade soybeans. Farmers in the province seeded about 1.9 million acres in 2018.

The Manitoba acreage is relatively low because North Dakota produces a sizable crop of food- grade soybeans. About five percent of the more than six million acres in North Dakota are dedicated to non-GM beans, which translates to 300,000 acres.

Ontario, Quebec and North Dakota farmers have different reasons for growing non-GM beans, but a big one is price. A Hensall Co-op document indicates there is a $3 premium on non-GM soybeans compared to GM beans.

A portion of the food grade soybean crop is exported to China, where Canada has established a solid foothold in the market.

“Canada exported 130,000 metric tons of food grade soybeans to China in the 2016-17 marketing year,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a report.

“This represents 23 percent of China’s food-grade soybean imports and a nearly five-fold increase from what Canada exported during the 2014-15 marketing year.”

Those figures will likely rise in 2018 because of the U.S.-China trade war. In July, China cancelled orders for food-grade soybeans from North Dakota, CNBC reported last month.

Demand for soy food products is expected to climb, so Soy Canada is hoping to boost national production from 1.25 million tonnes in 2016 to 1.8 million in 2027.

That would require about a 25 percent increase in non-GM acres, from one million to 1.25 million. That additional production may need to happen in Western Canada because soybean acres in Ontario and Quebec have hit a ceiling.

“There are companies trying to expand non-GMO production in Manitoba, but the challenge today is finding suitable varieties,” McNaughton said.

“Typically, (the) non-GMO soybean buyer wants protein levels of 40 percent or better (on a dry matter basis), but most of the short day varieties suitable for Manitoba will not meet that target.”

Canadian Grain Commission data shows that Manitoba soybeans had an average (dry matter) protein content of 37.4 percent in 2017, but that’s for high-yielding GM varieties.

Non-GM beans would likely have higher levels of protein and such varieties are being grown in Manitoba.

“They are all over. I was surprised to see that pocket up in the Interlake (near Arborg),” said Cassandra Tkachuk, production specialist with the Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers.

Non-GM soybeans might be well suited for Manitoba’s Red River Valley, which has a longer growing season than most other parts of Western Canada. Beans from the valley typically have higher protein content than soybeans from western Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Further down the road, there may be more non-GM varieties that are suitable for Western Canada.

“There is certainly an opportunity to increase food-grade soybean production in Canada,” McNaughton said.

“Many seed companies are working on developing Non-GMO varieties suitable for Manitoba, some of which are in trials now, so it is only a matter of time before more options exist.”

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