Soybean Agriculture

Krysta Levac
11 September 2012


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The Long Road from Asia

Soybeans have been a food staple in Asia for thousands of years. Recent archaeological evidence suggests they were domesticated in China as early as 5,500 years ago, and in Japan and South Korea by 3,000 years ago. Soybeans have a much shorter history in North America, where they were introduced around 1765 as a niche crop grown in Georgia to produce soy sauce and soybean vermicelli noodles. It appears that stir-fried noodles did not take the North American palate by storm, because soybeans weren’t widely cultivated for another hundred years, and even then they were primarily used for chicken and hog feed.

Soybeans arrived in Canada around 1855, via the United States, and have grown to become the 5th most valuable field crop after canola, wheat, potatoes and corn (2006 Statistics Canada data). Their value lies in their versatility. Soybeans are consumed as food, used for livestock feed, crushed for oil and processed for both food and industrial applications.

Let’s take a closer look at Canadian soybean agriculture, soybean genetic modification, and their food and industrial uses.

Cultivating Soybeans in Canada – The Legume Low-Down

Soybeans are classified as an official grain of Canada, but they aren’t a grain at all. They are really legumes, in the same family as peas, beans, peanuts, lentils and alfalfa. The grain classification is for regulatory purposes, and means the Canadian Grain Commission sets quality standards for soybean crops and ensures that contracts between farmers and buyers are honoured. Soybeans are usually part of a crop rotation with corn and/or wheat, where the type of crop grown in the same field changes each year. Crop rotation reduces disease incidence, insect damage and weed growth, and improves the quality of the soil.

Soybean seeds, like other legumes, grow inside a pod that splits open on two sides. If you’ve ever snacked on edamame, you have first-hand experience with the anatomy of soybeans and their pods. Edamame are soybeans that are harvested while the pods and beans are still green (Figure 1A). They are currently imported frozen from China or Taiwan, but research is underway to develop a home-grown soybean variety that is suitable for this tasty snack. Canadian soybeans are planted in mid-May to early June and harvested in September or October, after the stems, pods and seeds have dried and turned light brown to avoid staining the soybeans green (Figure 1B).

Before the mid-1970’s, Canadian soybeans were really “southern Ontario soybeans,” because that was the only region with a suitably long and warm growing season. Crop breeding programs produced new varieties that grew faster and had better cold tolerance, and soybean cultivation has since spread across most of the country. While most soybeans are still grown in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are also major producers, with smaller amounts grown in other provinces (Figure 2).

Canada accounts for less than two percent of production worldwide, but is known for producing high quality food-grade soybeans and beans with specialty traits for targeted markets. Approximately 35% of Canadian soybeans are not genetically modified, and most of these are exported to Japan. The European Union (EU) is another large export market for non-GE soybeans, which makes sense given the aversion of many EU nations to GE foods. However, GE soybeans are exported to the EU for use in biodiesel production.

Identity Preserved Soybeans – The Need for Extreme Personal Space

GE and non-GE soybeans are segregated for different export markets, but there’s a further level of strict segregation for non-GE food-grade soybean varieties that are designated as identity preserved (IP). Identity preservation is a process that ensures the purity of a soybean variety with a specific trait. For example, certain soybean varieties are grown specifically to make tofu (soybean curd) or natto (fermented soybeans), or because they have high protein or sugar content, or a very pale colour. The IP designation is important for many international customers, and IP soybeans have been grown in Canada for more than thirty years.

IP soybean farmers must follow all the procedures outlines by the Canadian Identity Preserved Recognition System, including purchasing certified IP soybean seeds, cleaning all planting and harvesting equipment to remove traces of other crops, keeping records of all field operations, allowing third-party inspections and segregating the harvested soybeans. The life of an IP soybean must be documented, inspected and segregated from seed to export. Farmers are willing to carry increased production costs because buyers of Canadian IP soybeans pay a premium to get exactly what they want, with documentation to prove it. Three quarters of Canada’s soybean exports to Asia are identity preserved.

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Krysta Levac

After an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, I earned a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University in 2001. I spent 7 years as a post-doctoral fellow and research associate in stem cell biology at Robarts Research Institute at Western University in London, ON. I currently enjoy science writing, Let's Talk Science outreach, and volunteering at my son's school. I love sharing my passion for science with others, especially children and youth. I am also a bookworm, a yogi, a quilter, a Lego builder and an occasional "ninja spy" with my son.

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