An indigenous soybean solution

January 22, 2023

Indigenous solutions for soybean, including the GM soybean varieties, await adoption

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Poultry, the second biggest industry in the country, is likely to suffer a shortage of essential feed ingredients on account of the delay in the clearance of shiploads of imported GM soybean. As a result, the ordinary consumer will be deprived of affordable protein diet, which is a serious food security challenge.

The legal part of the story has been accurately reported. However, the same cannot be said about the interpretation of the science part. The law of the land permits import and consumption of GM crops if after due diligence they are considered safe. However, violations of law and non-compliance of the ethical framework must not be misinterpreted to condemn the technology.

Legally, the importers/ exporters are obligated to make declarations under the Cartagena Protocol; these were missing. The non-compliance of Cartagena Protocol has been rightly pointed out. But that has been the case for decades.

Be that as it may, while the importers/ exporters are guilty, some of the fault also lies with the governance. One has to understand that today there is very little non-GM global soybean trade. The biggest trading partners in GM soybean are the USA and China. No direct correlation between cancer and GM soybean has been reported from the two countries. There are allergens in all legumes, including the common pulses we consume. Those diagnosed with allergies can and should avoid consuming legumes or legume-fed diets.

Soya meal was initially imported in Pakistan as a poultry feed ingredient without worrying about the GM origin. With the growth of local solvent extraction industry, the import of grain soybean started rising from the year 2014. With that, the requirement for a declaration under Cartagena Protocol was introduced. However, it was mostly ignored. The current import crisis is going to affect the business of oil extraction and ghee industry as well.

Soybean (Glycine max L) is a nutrient dense leguminous crop. Its protein (38-42 percent) and oil contents (18-22 percent) are among the highest in edible grains. Varieties have been selected for either of the two principal contents. For its food value, it is one of the highest studied crops for science and value-added products.

It is a native of China. The USA, Brazil and Argentina are currently the world leaders in soybean production. According to FAO data, the world’s area under soybean is 135 million hectares with an annual production of 390 million tonnes. Nearly every country in the world sells or buys soybeans or soya products. China alone imports more than 90 million tonnes of soybean annually.

Being a legume, soybean is a restorer crop that improves the soil fertility. The major producers of the world grow soybean in rotation with corn. Soybean is a hugely water-efficient crop compared to other Kharif alternatives, i.e., 500mm of water is required for soybean compared to 1,600 mm for rice, 700mm for maize and 1,800mm for sugarcane.

The economics of soybean should also be understood as an import substitute. Our cost of soybean and other edible oil-seeds imports is higher ($5 billion) than the foreign exchange earnings from the export of rice ($2.5 billion). The huge cost of virtual water export for free is going unnoticed.

There are lessons to be learned from the current crisis. The opportunity is to move towards indigenous solutions. Soybean is a Kharif crop, i.e., it can grow where maize, cotton, rice and sugarcane do. India and Pakistan started introductory trials of soybean in the 1960s. Today, India is a net exporter of soybean and its products. However, Pakistan lost its way, midway. The reasons for our failure included selection of proper varieties and marketing structure.

We, at the Pak-US Centre for Advanced Studies, initiated a soybean development programme in 2014. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the University of California-Davis were our initial collaborators. The international collaboration has expanded into several countries, including China, South Korea, Canada, South Africa and Brazil. The programme has grown into a nationally recognised initiative.

A collection of more than 5,000 accessions/ germplasm (genetic diversity) was acquired from the USA and other partner countries to map the adaptability of exotic soybean varieties across the diverse agro-ecological zones of Pakistan from Badin to Gilgit.

Soybean is a temperature- and day length-sensitive plant. It is also known to respond differently at various elevations. There are determinate varieties of a life cycle of 70 to 120 days and there are indeterminate genotypes with a growth duration of six months or more.

We have mapped and selected our genetic materials for spring and autumn planting. The two groups are an extreme contrast to each other. The spring crop is sown when temperatures are low and day length is short and harvested when temperatures are high (45 degrees C) and days are longer, it requires a genetic potential to flower and set fruit under high temperature.

The autumn crop is sown during longer days of late summer season and higher temperature, to be harvested when the temperature goes down, during shorter days. Seed germination and flowering are two temperature-sensitive traits that are differently selected in the two groups of varieties.

The successful introduction of soybean requires additional work on defining variable agronomic packages from south to the north of the country. Soybean has a potential to be adopted as an intercrop in sugarcane, maize and cotton. Farm machinery for planting and harvesting needs to be reverse engineered.

The Indian example of soybean can be replicated, i.e., the government offers market incentives and packages of technology. Two crops of soybean can be grown on the same piece of land like maize. Rotating soybean with maize can improve profitability.

India promoted soybean as an alternative to rice by offering price support and matching profit packages. Our successful introduction of spring maize during the past 40 years is an equally shining example. We have also successfully introduced mung as a Kharif crop, enough to meet our needs.

It is time to benefit from the technological advances instead of opposing the science without evidence. The indigenous solutions for soybean, including GM varieties, await adoption.

The writer is the vice chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

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