Releasing new soya bean cultivars in South Africa

By Dr’s Daniel Ploper (EEAOC, Argentina) and Francois Koekemoer (Sensako)

The genetic improvement of soybeans worldwide is a challenge that both private companies and official institutions, continue to address in order to develop cultivars that meet current and future markets demand. It is essential to continue investing in research to release new cultivars adapted to a changing world, characterized by climate change, a growing requirement for food, consumer expectations for improved nutritional quality and food safety, and public demand for sustainable production with rational use of resources and minimum impact on the environment.

For these reasons, processes that involve delivering new soybeans varieties that meet all these requirements should not be interrupted. Genetic improvement programs involve a great effort, that include the hybridization of selected parental lines and stabilization of its progeny; the evaluation of these new materials over time in different environments, not only geographical but also climatic; and the selection of the most adapted lines to each location. This long and laborious process ends up with the formal registration of new cultivars, followed by seed increase before being marketed and offered to farmers.

It is also essential to understand that each new variety must be accompanied by a technological package of management practices that will allow each cultivar to express all its genetic potential. Thus, planting systems, row spacing, nutrition, irrigation, maturity group, seed production, pest management, production costs, etc, are all aspects that should be considered in soybean production.  Furthermore, it is important to consider in each field the entire production system that includes different crops and their management over several cycles, with their interactions and effects. 

To achieve these objectives in South Africa, the Protein Research Foundation (PRF) has been carrying out a sustained effort over the last decade, which allowed the incorporation of selected soybean germplasm from different origins, especially Argentina. This has enabled the selection of cultivars adapted to the different production areas and planting dates. This work should continue to capitalize on the positive effects of the experience and at the same time to allow the evaluations of new technologies that emerge in crop production, both in genetics and in management.  Therefore, we believe that previously mentioned germplasm currently being produced in South Africa had not been properly tested regarding the latter practices and thus the yield potential of these varieties most probably had not been fully exploited yet.

However, to reach future advances that will qualitatively increase current capabilities, it is necessary to lay the foundations for new approaches in genetics and breeding, especially concerning new biotechnological developments, such as those based on the collection and analysis of high throughput biological data, in what is commonly known as “omics”. Massive phenotypic, genotypic, metabolomic and proteomic approaches constitute this area called "omics", which provide a huge amount of massive data that must be analyzed together. This kind of data analyses could help understand the effects of genomics variants on phenotypes, understand pleiotropic effects and/or elucidate the causes of complex multigenic phenomena such as performance or stress responses (biotic or abiotic).  In this sense, it is necessary to combine capabilities of phenotyping varieties under multiple environments or greenhouse conditions, genomics and/or transcriptomics data, and selection assisted by molecular markers (MM) to obtain new genotypes and/or technologies that increase crop soybean sustainability in South Africa.

On the other hand, it is important to deepen the knowledge of the soybean genome, not only taking into account public databases but also sequencing specific genotypes.  CrispR Cas9 technology has emerged in recent years as one of the most promising that would allow genomes to be manipulated through the so called "genome editing".  Virtually, this will make possible to modify at will specific target sequences to achieve particular effects.

In summary, efficient and sustainable soybean production will require improved agronomic management and cultivars with high yield potential and resistance or tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses.  The integration of conventional breeding with "state of the art" biotechnologies, such as the latest generation of phenomic and genomic approaches, is critical for the development of such cultivars. 

Although the soybean market had grown significantly over the last decade (currently around 700,000 ha) it is still small when compared to other countries such as Argentina, Brazil and the USA.  There are currently more than 20 companies selling soybean varieties in South Africa, thus a very fragmented market, with huge Farm Saved Seed levels-FSS (in excess of 95%), with very low profit margins on certified seed.  In order to justify a soybean breeding programme in SA one needs to have at least a 40 – 50% market share just to break even.  Therefore 95% of all cultivars currently being produced in South Africa are foreign, mostly these cultivars are licensed from Argentinean companies.

Thus, the South African market is under sever threat, because international nurseries are migrating away from RR1.  Sensako had been informed last week by one the largest Brazilian soybean breeding companies that they will not be supplying new germplasm to be tested in South Africa going forward, because they will not be putting any effort into breeding varieties with RR1 technology.  Therefore, it is critical that the End Point Royalty for soybean is being implemented successfully and that compliance for paying royalties of FSS must be above 90% in order to attract investment from international role players for the newest technology such as the Intacta (RR2 and BT) and HB4 events. If the economic situation of the SA soybean market does not improve drastically soon, then the owners of new technology will not be deregulating/commercializing these technologies for the South African market.