Veteran Soybean Researchers Reflect on Changes, Opportunities
Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
Researcher Joe Burton has worked to improve seed-composition quality and meal and oil quality in soybeans at the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1975. Walter Fehr has been conducting research at Iowa State University since 1967, focusing on yield, disease resistance, insect resistance and seed composition. Over the years, these checkoff-supported researchers have seen U.S. soybean research become a more exact science. They recently spoke to Beyond the Bean Online about some of the changes they've seen.
What changes have you seen in U.S. soybeans and soybean research during your time as a researcher?
Burton: Over the years, we've increased the genetic potential for yield and improved disease resistance, particularly resistance to soybean cyst nematode. We also have the capabilities to improve the intrinsic quality of soybeans, such as low-linolenic and high-oleic soybeans. As for research, there have been great increases in knowledge, especially in regard to the soybean genome and in the use of molecular technology in soybean breeding. We've also seen increased funding from the public sector through the soybean checkoff and more private-industry research to develop new varieties.
Iowa State University researcher Walter Fehr, Ph.D., planted research plots by hand when he started his research career. Fehr says that advancements used in research now, such as winter nurseries, have halved the length of new variety development to just six years. (From: Iowa State University)
Fehr: One of the most important changes that occurred beginning in the 1970s was the establishment of breeding programs by the private sector. Public and private breeders have done a good job of supplying the market with soybean varieties that have higher yield, improved pest resistance and improved seed composition. There've been very dramatic changes over the years in the way we carry out breeding programs, including the use of mechanization and computer technology to evaluate thousands of potential new varieties each year and the use of winter nurseries. When I started, we grew one crop a year; now we're growing three. The length of variety development has shrunk from 12 years to six. In recent years, the use of molecular technology has resulted in novel traits, such as herbicide tolerance, and has made it possible to select more effectively for some traits.
What are some soybean-research milestones that your research has helped facilitate?
Burton: We have developed mid-oleic and high-oleic germplasm using the public germplasm bank. We've also found genetic markers associated with those high-oleic genes. This is the kind of progress we've been able to make. Those are things that are direct outcomes of the checkoff's investments and leadership.
Fehr: We have always had a strong program for developing varieties that are important for human consumption, such as tofu, soymilk and edamame. Our research that led to genes for improving oil quality by lowering the saturated fat content and eliminating chemical hydrogenation has been an important contribution to the soybean industry.
How has the soybean checkoff assisted you in researching soybeans?
Burton: The soybean checkoff helped to bring together a group of scientists to work on these seed-composition problems and gave us resources to do additional research that we wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. The checkoff has also provided for a focused attack on particular composition problems. We didn't have that support before, and the checkoff gave us the financial resources to make some real progress.
Fehr: The checkoff has been a consistent source of support. That's important because it takes at least six years of research before a new variety can be released for commercial use. The checkoff support also has been critical for exploring new traits that have the potential to benefit soybeans in the future.
U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Joe Burton, Ph.D., says that checkoff funding helps bring researchers together to solve problems.
What do you see for the future of U.S. soybeans?
Burton: The demand for soybeans is high. I don't know how much more land we can add to soybean production, but there is room for improvement in productivity and response to environmental pressures. There's a need for continued research. The environment is changing, and soybeans will continue to be assaulted by diseases and pests, some of which we don't even know about. We've got to have continued public support for ag research in general, and certainly in soybeans. We've got to keep working. We can't sit on our laurels.
Fehr: There will continue to be an emphasis on increasing yield, improving pest resistance and modifying seed composition to meet the needs of consumers. There will be greater use of molecular technology for the selection of desired traits.
United Soybean Board