Conventional soybeans used to be the norm — now they're a niche. Since Roundup Ready soybeans debuted 12 years ago, growers have steadily increased their acreages to biotech soybeans. Today only about 8% of the U.S. soybean crop is planted to non-biotech varieties.

Seed companies have either cut back on non-biotech offerings or have dropped them. Growers like the convenience of herbicide-resistant soybeans, and breeding programs reflect this demand.

At the same time, some farmers want to plant non-biotech varieties and are finding that seed supplies are not always adequate. Last year, with soybean seed quality issues, seed supplies were tight overall. “These same problems also limited the supply of non-biotech soybeans,” says Maury Johnson, president, Blue River Hybrids, Kelley, IA. Johnson had developed the NC+ Organics division of NC+ Hybrids, and after the sale of NC+ Hybrids in 2005, formed Blue River Hybrids, an organic agronomic seed company.

“The bushels were there, but high germination and seed quality weren't,” says Don Schafer, senior product line manager-soybeans, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Johnston, IA. Pioneer sold out of its non-biotech soybean seed for 2008, but is currently producing over sales estimates and will offer seven non-biotech varieties for 2009.

Beck's Hybrids, Atlanta, IN, is offering three non-biotech varieties. Beck 311N is a competitive non-biotech soybean featuring yellow hilum. Growers also can contract to produce Beck 327, a food-grade variety with high protein content and clear hilum. Beck 381N features soybean cyst nematode (SCN) resistance and Phytophthora resistance with overall agronomic qualities for many environments.

“Fewer growers are planting non-biotech varieties, but we do continue to offer non-biotech varieties for those who want to grow them,” says Scott Beck, vice president, Beck's Hybrids.

Asoyia, Iowa City, IA, a farmer-owned company focused on low-linolenic varieties, will have 10 non-biotech varieties available, three of which are new. Three of the 10 varieties have SCN resistance and all have a solid disease-resistance package, says Brett Maxwell, the company's vice president of operations. One is a 2.3 maturity soybean. Traditionally, there have not been many early season non-biotech varieties for growers who want them, Maxwell says.

Based on shortages this past year, some companies have taken a more aggressive stance in marketing them, Maxwell says. “Asoyia works with four genetics suppliers that supply non-biotech seed. There's a perception that there is not enough work being done on non-biotech soybeans, but in actuality there is.”

Non-biotech seed supplies are getting tighter. Scott Shriver, who farms 1,800 acres near Jefferson, IA, has not had problems getting non-biotech seed in the past. But, supplies are getting tighter each year, he says.

“Most of the Breeding emphasis is either on the biotech types for higher yield or on food-grade types for qualities like seed size, protein and low linolenic levels,” says Shriver, who is growing non-biotech, non-organic natto type soybeans and is getting $4.30 premiums over the CBOT price. “This leaves a gap in the breeding for high-yielding, feed-grade soybeans.”

Allen Williams, who farms about 1,300 acres near Cerro Gordo, IL, was unable to find organic seed this year, and expects that he will have to contract just to get non-biotech organic seed next year…either that, or he may have to raise his own.

Williams knows of buyers who had difficulties procuring non-biotech oilseeds last year. “I'd like to see more varieties developed for non-biotech and organic markets. My concern is that the public isn't being allowed to have choice in non-biotech or biotech food.”

However, Williams understands the appeal of Roundup Ready soybeans. “They're quite easy to raise. There's no discount to market them and yields have caught up with conventional varieties.”

While newer Roundup Ready varieties have improved in yield, the first ones did not perform as well as conventional soybeans, says Ray Bok, who farms 2,400 acres in Defiance County, OH. That is why he chose Pioneer 93B82 in 1997 and has grown it ever since. Japanese buyers like the variety for its tofu quality and Bok receives a $1.20/bu. premium.

Non-biotech seed availability could be an issue if more farmers return to growing conventional soybeans to avoid new price increases for biotech seed. “With input costs increasing and the potential for grain prices dropping, there could be a major squeeze. Growers will look to cut production costs and may go back to non-biotech seed,” Bok says. He has seen some growers in his area return to non-biotech seed to take advantages of premiums. Depending on the variety and end-use market, premiums range from 90¢ to $1.20/bu., he says.

More growers are producing corn with biotech traits so they're thinking about growing soybeans without the traits to save money, Maxwell says. “They're seeing that weed control is better than before so they can do a good job of growing non-biotech soybeans.”

Schafer doesn't see the non-biotech market growing significantly, but adds that Pioneer's non-biotech sales have been up due to good performance and some competitive seed companies leaving the non-biotech business.

Demand by contracting entities for high-protein, high-oil varieties also has been good. Most non- biotech varieties are patented, including all Pioneer non-biotech varieties, Schafer says. “Companies must reinvest in their research programs to bring new products to the market. Bin run or saving seed makes that impossible. Most contractors now require a seed invoice for IP contracts. They're supporting our breeding efforts.”

Some Large Buyers also have left the non-biotech market. Others, while continuing to pay for non-biotech soybeans, are feeling the pressures of premiums and the costs of identity preservation, Schafer says. “They're reevaluating how badly they want non-biotech.”

Then there are end users who are accustomed to varieties that have been around for years. The Vinton soybean variety is a favorite in Japan. But, it yields two-thirds of what newer varieties do. Farmers would need a very good premium to grow it, says Bill Latham, president, Latham Seed Co., Alexander, IA.

Supplies of non-biotech seed are inadequate, but Latham notes that many seed companies maintain non-biotech breeding programs in soybeans for introgression of new genetic traits.

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About 98% of the soybeans in Latham's territory are Roundup Ready. Latham Seeds also markets soybeans for food use in Japan and Taiwan. While the demand for non-biotech soybeans is “definitely there,” there is a price tug of war between growers and buyers, Latham says. Growers want good premiums to make up for perceived yield deficits with non-biotech soybeans and for not having the convenience of the Roundup Ready system while buyers are reluctant to increase premiums, he observes.

A Future Complicating factor may be that the new Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean trait will have even more yield and will be the foundation trait upon which future traits are stacked. That may require an even higher premium to entice growers to raise non-biotech soybeans, Latham says.

Asian buyers paid $1-1.50/bu. premiums for non-biotech soybeans last year, but were dissatisfied with the quality, and European buyers could not find enough non-biotech seed to meet demand. So says Lynn Clarkson, president, Clarkson Grain Co., Inc., Cerro Gordo, IL. His company supplies Asian and other markets with grain and oilseeds.

Meanwhile, organic growers in the U.S. struggle to get seed to meet the increasing demand for organic grain and oilseeds here. “Buyers want more and better seed varieties so that growers can produce non-biotech soy and corn,” says Clarkson.

“There's nothing convenient about organic,” Clarkson says. “Growers have to determine whether convenience and yield beats profit per acre.”