What new whiz-bang soybean varieties should you expect next year? You can plan on access to more low linolenic varieties for 2006, but other new trait technology remains a few years out. Seed specialists say the gap will close quickly, though, as several new biotech events will be ready by the end of the decade.

“The number of varieties with low saturated fat or low linolenic acid has expanded for 2006,” says Walter Fehr, Iowa State University soybean breeder. “Some of the extensive research on new traits will show up in future soybean varieties, but it's difficult to project when new traits will be commercially available. Breeders first must determine if it's feasible to develop varieties that will be commercially acceptable to farmers and end users.”

Breeders are working on new traits that could affect both soybean production and utilization. New production trait work includes resistance to soybean aphids, while utilization traits include increasing the oleic acid content of soybean oil and improving the digestibility of phosphorus in soybean seed by lowering phytate content.

“From a breeder's perspective, the trait has to be useful to someone in order to justify the investment of resources necessary for variety development,” says Fehr. “New production traits have to provide more profit for the farmer, and new utilization traits must provide an advantage to the end user compared with products already available. For utilization traits, the identity preservation costs of varieties with new traits are also a consideration.”

Additional long-term public research funded by the soybean checkoff is under way to identify new traits. Tommy Carter, USDA scientist, is coordinating a team of researchers working to apply genetic drought tolerance information to variety development programs. Likewise, Thomas Baum, Iowa State University, is leading a team using biotechnology to identify new control methods for soybean cyst nematode (SCN).

Commercial researchers are also busy with new traits in the pipeline. Kurt Wickstrom, U.S. soybean trait marketing manager for Monsanto, St. Louis, MO, says they will release Roundup RReady2Yield soybeans within the next several years. Wickstrom says like Roundup Ready soybeans, the new event is glyphosate tolerant with a potential 3-5 bu./acre yield increase and wider application window for Roundup herbicides.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Johnston, IA, is also working on an alternative glyphosate tolerant gene for soybeans, known as GAT. John Soper, director of soybean research, says GAT is in the regulatory clearance process and could be commercialized in 2008 or 2009. Soper says GAT works with a different mode of action than the traditional product, with a higher tolerance to glyphosate and higher yield potential.

“With the overwhelming success of the Roundup Ready soybean system, the seed industry is fairly focused on herbicide resistance,” adds David Thompson, director of marketing, Stine Seed, Adel, IA. “The Roundup Ready soybean system has demonstrated a certain level of value to growers, so anybody who's bringing something new to the marketplace will have to meet or exceed that level in terms of product performance or in overall package value.”

Stine's biotech facility in Ames, IA, is focusing research on several options in the areas of herbicide and pest resistance. Thompson says various products are in different stages of development, but none will be commercially available for several years.

“We are developing products with resistance to aphids,” says Pioneer's Soper. “We have identified a source of aphid resistance and hope to have commercial products ready by 2009 at the earliest. Asian soybean rust research is further out. Our research has identified varieties demonstrating tolerance to the rust that reduce spore production.”

Kurt Sieren, NK Brand soybean product manager for Syngenta Seeds, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, says the company is working on such non-biotech traits as high pH and SCN resistance, as well as using marker-assisted breeding and gene isolation to explore traits like drought and iron chlorosis tolerance and accelerate product launches.

“We are aggressively using molecular marker-assisted breeding efforts to increase our ability to deliver value-added products,” says Sieren. “We are also spending more resources annually to address the output side of the business through ExtraEdge, where we test and categorize our soybean products for high oil and protein.”

Likewise, Monsanto has drought tolerance and other input trait research under way that could increase soybean production. Additionally, Wickstrom says that food quality output traits will be an area that can increase grower profitability. He says output traits offer higher value and are quickly capturing consumer interest.

“Vistive is the umbrella brand that includes our low linolenic soybeans. All of our Vistive soybeans are Roundup Ready, and so far have been on par in terms of yield with other soybeans,” he explains. “Next in the Vistive line will be mid-oleic soybeans with low linolenic acid that can improve both food shelf life and nutrition. Both traits will be in Roundup Ready soybeans.”

Soper says Pioneer has additional lines with the low linolenic trait, and is also looking at high-oleic soybeans. “High oleic oil is a stable oil of value to the food industry,” he says. “The high oleic trait has entered the regulatory clearance process and could be available in 2009.”

The eventual goal is to develop a commercially viable product, says Stine's Thompson.

“Even the most exciting and promising traits are of no value to us if we can't find a way to develop, produce and market the seed at a price that's acceptable to growers,” he says.

Stine places a priority on developing higher-yielding soybeans first. “We believe right now the only trait that increases profits is yield. With the talk surrounding value-added output traits, that may someday change. But for the foreseeable future the one thing growers can do to maximize profits is purchase the highest-yielding seed available,” Thompson says.

“We look at the economic value to growers of bringing traits to market, and the more value, the higher the priority it gets,” says Soper. “Yield impact, premium potential and input cost reduction are three components that influence our decisions. In addition to new traits, we continue to focus on yield enhancement. Historically, soybean yields in the U.S. have been growing at about 4/10 bu./year increase in yield. With molecular markers, we hope to add 1 bu./year to yield potential.”

Grower profitability is the number one factor for Syngenta's research efforts, says Sieren.

“Each producer views value differently. But if we can align our resources to help them produce a more profitable crop, then everyone benefits,” he adds.

But even the best-laid plans will continue to face at least one major bump in the road.

“The biggest factor impacting the introduction of new soybean traits in the next five years will be the regulatory approval process,” says Thompson. “We have first-hand experience with several different traits that could offer real benefits to growers, but will likely never be released. That's because with a price tag of $100 million or more, and the current attitudes in the EU (European Union), regulatory approval is not a process for the faint of heart.”