What was behind the curtain? by Andrew Ormerod in conversation with Colin Leakey

What do you do on Saturdays?  Go shopping may be, or go to watch a football match? Imagine you are at school and as part of your biology class you are asked to turn your hand to carry out practical genetics study work on a Saturday morning. Except this isn’t studying fruit flies or Mendelian inheritance in peas.  Instead you are lending a hand to solve your countries food problems.  This was the case in Belarus before the Iron Curtain opened up.  School children took part in a practical genetics class run on Saturdays by Professor Oleg Davydenko to breed soybeans adapted to cooler northern climates, in a public park in Minsk.  No one in the West knew about this until Colin Leakey met up with Professor Davydenko. Colin had been sent to Minsk as a volunteer consultant by the British organisation BESO (British Executive Service Overseas), which is like VSO but for older professionals.  Colin had been interested in using early maturing lines of soybeans in Uganda and he continued his interest when he came back to the UK.  When he met Professor Davydenko, they both pulled out the same scientific papers from their bags indicating that they were thinking along parallel lines about producing early maturing soybeans…….. So why was this significant?  A quick review of their recent history is called for.

Diversity of soybeans and their traditional uses as human food

Soybeans have a long range from the island of Sakhalin below the North east frontier of the former Soviet Union and Japan stretching down to the equator and Indonesia. In the Southern part of their range they are used to make a range of products collectively known as Tempeh with the same kind of diversity which in Europe we would associate with blue cheeses. In the Northern part of their range they make products collectively called Tofu more like soft cheeses and yoghurts and a fermented dark coloured sauce called Miso which is widely used for flavour enhancement in East Asian cuisine (also a rich natural source of monosodium glutamate).

Soybeans take on the world in the 20th century as a source of oil and animal feed.

Soybeans success as a global dominant crop is a phenomena of 20th Century  industrialisation — most of the top major world crops have been globally significant for longer.  Since collection and transfer to North America by Morse and others soybean has become a major industrial oil seed grain, rather than a pulse because of the high extractable vegetable oil content . This allows most of the crop to be used for dual purposes after industrial separation of the vegetable oil and the high protein seed cake used in animal feed.

In Europe there had already been interest in producing this sort of feed from seed producing legumes, such as field beans, agricultural lupins and soya beans. The USA imposed a trade embargo in 1973 on exports of soya beans to Europe due to a poor harvest and shortage of reserves.  Imported soybeans had become a major source of quality vegetable protein feed.   There was interest in the European Union in ensuring secure supplies by breeding vegetable protein crops. Soybean was one of the best sources of high quality vegetable protein.

Vulnerability of supply of vegetable protein

Soybeans are categorized by maturity dates ranging from 5 down to ‘000,’ where varieties in category ‘5’ flower and produce seed under short day conditions found near the equator. There has been a long held belief that soybeans were not well adapted to Northern European conditions as they matured too late in the year. If grown in our Northern European conditions they wouldn’t start flowering until its too late in the season. Only ‘00’ types are suitable for Northern European conditions. This isn’t the case the American collecting trips of the early 20th century that was the foundation for the modern soybean industry had brought back soybeans with a relatively narrow gene pool and didn’t include early maturing material from other areas of soybeans natural range suitable for latitudes some distance from the equator.

The quest for early maturing Soybeans

Both Colin and Oleg had quite independently been influenced by the work of Sven Holmberg from Fiskeby Research Station in Sweden.  Sven produced a variety called Fiskeby V which was early maturing through insensitivity to long day length.  Unfortunately Fiskeby V was developed from lines from Northern Japan that were used as a green vegetables rather than for dried seeds. This meant that the seed pods tended to shatter on ripening.  Colin too had used these genetic resources from the Takuchi  Research Station in Hokkaido, such as ‘Tokachinagaha’ and ‘Hakkucho early green’  when he was still at Makerere in Uganda.  He recognising that these earlier maturing day-neutral lines  had benefits for both the equator and high latitude regions. Colin trialled his early maturing soy beans when he returned from Uganda in 1973.  Some of Colin’s early maturing soy beans were well adapted and earlier than ‘Swift’ for example in France,  but lower yielding than Oleg’s subsequently proved to be.

Significance of soybean breeding from behind the curtain

So Colin realised that Oleg Davydenko’s successful soybean breeding work had significance for other countries in Northern Europe and arranged for trials on his own breeding plots in Cambridge and simultaneously at Wye College in Kent.  A representative of the British minister of agriculture came to see the Cambridge trial and as a result Wye College obtained funding for a post doctoral student and an assistant to conduct larger scale agronomic trials in Kent and to provide an information base for possible launching of one or more varieties in the UK.  After successful trials in Kent a commercial seed company located near Winchester agreed to commercialise one or more varieties and to pay a proper royalty to the breeder. Thus arrived the variety called ‘Northern Conquest’ which has been grown in Southern England for several years.  There has also been good earlier maturing varieties introducing into Britain from the Ukraine.  

More recently one effect of the BSE crisis has been to increase  the need for domestic production of high quality vegetable protein for farm animals. There has been concern, particularly among organic farmers, that genetically modified soybeans is not separated from non GM soya from some of the major exporting countries so there may be opportunities for producing traceable non GM early maturing soybean varieties  in Europe or the UK

Some recent global developments in use of soybean biodiversity

The industrial development of soybeans and the wide global distribution of their products has over shadowed traditional developments and products. Since the opening up of China in the 1980s there has been considerable collecting of traditional germ-plasm from areas not visited in earlier times when germ-plasm collection. Notably this has lead to the discovery and increased use of soybeans with much narrower leaves and leaflets and hence a higher crop index, yield enhancement may follow the pattern of the Green Revolution in cereals. The narrower leaves mean that there is less risk of bacterial disease and better light penetration within the canopy.

Result of Soybean breeding in Belarus

Now  Oleg and colleagues in Soya-North have produced 6 commercial varieties of soya beans, which cover more than 30 000 ha in Belarusian and Russian regions. The sоya beans were absent in this regions early.   Development of soybean varieties in Belarus has been accompanied by success in inspiring many young students who have gone on to work in genetics and plant breeding.

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013
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About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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