Some news from the oilseed industry

The oilseed industry — from biotechnologies to the latest in slowing the spread of oilseed pathogens

By Mikaël Akimowicz

Soybean field. Image from Pixabay

While researching the Manitoba soybean supply chain, RDI researchers attended a webinar organized by Canadian seed-industry publication Germination with presentations by T. Hyra (SeCan), G. Chen (University of Alberta), S. Tsai (Canterra Seeds), and K. Zaychuk and S. Foster (20/20 Seed Labs). The webinar focused on future developments in the oilseed industry, which in Canada, mainly consists of canola, soybean, sunflower, and flax production. Participants tackled different perspectives on oilseed production and oilseed crop protection.

According to Chen, oilseed is currently used for food (78%), renewable chemicals (15%), and animal feed (7%). On a global scale, it is estimated that 189 million metric tons of vegetable oils are going to be consumed in 2017/18. Although the growth rate of oilseed consumption is declining, oilseed consumption is projected to double by 2030.[1] This increased consumption will require an increase in production. Production can be Increased either by increasing acreages — which can lead to increasing land use conflicts — or increasing yields. That brings us to the question of which technologies can increase yields. Chen defended the controversial use of biotechnological innovations. Chen sees three main challenges for the adoption of biotechnologies:

1. their acceptance by consumers, who tend to strongly reject products based on biotechnologies;

2. their price (small companies may not be able to afford them); and

3. public regulations, which constrain their potential utilization.

During the Q&A, Chen explained that, for him, one way to increase yields by countering the development of herbicide-resistance would be to develop new technologies by modifying genes or introducing new genes — a solution that sounds like a mise en abyme of biotechnology development.

Following this discussion on biotechnological innovation, S. Tsai reminded the audience that the development and consolidation of oilseed (e.g. soybean) production in Manitoba contributes to the development of new pathogens. In a previous blog post, RDI shared research results which did indeed show the emergence of new soybean pathogens in Manitoba. For Tsai, traditional practices such as crop rotation can help contain pathogen development. He also highlighted the positive effect of tank mixing (i.e., mixing two or more crop protection products). However, this latter practice is controversial: it does not mitigate the long-term risk of resistance development, and it may increase pesticide residue on food, which has recently been shown to cause severe health issues. He believes innovations in breeding and agronomic research will improve pathogen resistance and slow the spread of diseases.

Finally, K. Zaychuk and S. Foster highlighted some recent innovations that could contribute to containing the impact of pathogens. Their approach is structured around three key elements: pathogens, hosts, and environment. When using their approach, modeling and in-field pathogen detection are a great benefit. They promoted the role of mobile-friendly tools that can help farmers anticipate the development of pathogens in their fields. For instance, Alberta has developed just such a tool for fusarium head blight. Based on weather conditions, applied treatments, and planted varieties, models can help assess risk and, therefore, help farmers make informed decisions whether to apply a treatment.

Figure 1: Assessment of fusarium head blight risk (Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry)

They also mentioned the development of Spornado, a user-friendly tool that passively captures spores in the air and collects them on a cassette. The cassette is sent to a lab for analysis, allowing farmers to know which pathogens are present in their fields.

Figure 2: A spornado in a field.

As the oilseed farming sector, including soybean production, continues to grow on the Prairies, more research will be needed to ensure the economic viability of the sector. In particular, research on soybean protein content is urgently needed to help farmers supply the soybean-processing industry with the high-protein-content beans they demand.

[1] Chapman K.D., Ohlrogge J.B. (2012). Compartmentation of triacylglycerol accumulation in plants. J. Biol. Chem. 287: 2288–2294