GMO vs Non-GMO Soybeans: A Growing Debate

By Geoff Geddes

Back when genetic engineering was in its infancy, the mention of GM (genetically modified) soybeans may have prompted a simple question: “What the heck are they?”

Today, GM soybeans comprise a substantial share of the market, but non-GMO varieties also have a large following among producers. And instead of asking what GMO stands for, soy farmers are looking at what’s involved in growing both GM and non-GM soybeans and deciding which one is right for them.

Generally speaking, GMO refers to any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods and other products, and are widely used in scientific research.

The GM soybean is one of the most widely used genetically modified plants in the world today. Also referred to as the Roundup Ready (RR) soybean, it was developed by the biotech giant Monsanto and made commercially available to farmers in 1996. It was created largely to let the plant survive being sprayed with the non-selective herbicide, Roundup, which can kill conventional soybean plants.

Pay up

Because non-GMO soybeans are primarily used for human consumption whereas the GM variety is found mostly in livestock feed, there is extra work and attention to detail required of the non-GMO producer.

“For growers, there is an additional effort in growing non-GM soybeans to food grade, and most producers would say that growing non-GM soybeans carries greater risk because it is more difficult to ensure good agronomic outcomes with more limited tools – such as weed control products,” said Jim Everson, Executive Director of Soy Canada.

For that reason, Everson said the non-GM beans tend to attract a premium which compensates the farmer for the extra effort and risk they take.

That premium is critical, because if it’s too low, producers won’t see the value in growing non-GM soybeans and shortages can result. As with many things these days, it’s all about supply and demand.

“The marketplace seems to move in cycles of two to three years,” said Maxim Charbonneau, Commercial Manager (Grain Desk) with Sevita International, a company that offers soybean research and development, certified seed, grower contracting and crop production, and food-grade non-GM soybean supplies.

Over the last five years, Charbonneau has seen premiums for non-GM soybeans nearly triple from $45 to $50 per tonne in 2011 to $100 to $160 per tonne last year, depending on the variety.

“2015 saw the highest premiums paid, causing overproduction of non-GM soybeans in 2016 as supply badly outpaced demand. When exporters have enough supply, premiums may decrease; then supply drops for the next year so premiums increase.”

You get the idea.

Depending on how you look at it, Charbonneau said the method of setting prices could be a blessing or a curse for both GM and non-GM producers.

“The downside to growing GM beans is that you’re not getting a premium, just whatever the local elevator is paying, so you have no way to improve your bottom line. With non-GM, on the other hand, you do receive that premium but you’re really at the mercy of supply and demand from year to year.”

As farmers, we need to see this as a long-term investment in Canada’s future. I think the Canadian producer is in a prime position to help grow our market share and support one of the world’s most important players for non-GM soybeans.”

Take control

So is that premium enough to make growing non-GM soybeans worth your while? It really depends on your unique circumstances, but if you’re Hugh Dietrich, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

On his farm near Lucan, Ontario, Dietrich has been working with non-GM soybeans for 30 years. While he appreciates the premium for the extra work of spraying and keeping weeds under control, he said yield is also critical.

“By planting beans year to year with no history of heavy weed pressure, we can keep weeds in check and still get normal to above normal yields compared to GM soybeans.”

That’s not to say that he sees no benefit to the GM approach.

“There are a lot of new traits coming out and a lot of technology has gone into genetic modification, so we need to keep our yields as high as the GM beans going forward.”

Should you opt for the non-GM route, Dietrich said to keep a few things in mind.

“If you’re growing non-GM for an export market, pay strict attention to detail and stay focused on quality and traceability at all times.”

The ABCs of GMOs

As high as Dietrich is on non-GM soybeans, fellow farmer Ernie Sirski – a director with the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers as well as Soy Canada – is equally enthralled with the GM option.

Farming near Dauphin, Manitoba, Sirski cites ease of use and decreased risk as two reasons for his choice.

“The fact that GM beans are Roundup Ready crops is a big attraction,” said Sirski. “It makes them easy to grow compared to non-GM where you’re limited in the herbicides you can use. In the process, there’s less risk involved as you’re not at the mercy of pests that can wreak havoc with non-GM beans if left unchecked.”

Added to that, Sirski stressed that the “variety development in the GMO market is huge, making them more available to a wider geographic area than for non-GMO.”

On your mark, get set, grow

In spite of their differences, there seems to be at least one thing that growers of GM and non-GM soybeans can agree on: the future is friendly.

“I would say the market for non-GMO soybeans is strong and will continue to grow,” said Soy Canada’s Jim Everson. “Canada has an excellent reputation internationally for the quality of our food-grade soybeans and a very robust quality assurance system.”

For his part, Charbonneau foresees some ups and downs but stresses the upside.

“Like any other market, soybeans are consumer driven. Demand fluctuates and the last two years have seen supplies on the higher side. I expect that we will slowly move towards a breakdown of around 65 percent GMO and 35 percent non-GMO. But again, the cycle continues to prevail and premiums will follow.”

Taking it a step farther, Charbonneau is big on the big picture.

“As farmers, we need to see this as a long-term investment in Canada’s future. I think the Canadian producer is in a prime position to help grow our market share and support one of the world’s most important players for non-GM soybeans.”

Similarly, Ernie Sirski is bullish on GM beans.

“GMOs hold huge benefits for producers. As the demand for soybeans as a protein source rises across North America and around the world, the science of genetic modification is a key to helping us meet that demand.”

To be sure, he doesn’t begrudge anyone growing non-GMO beans if they are able to capture the premium. He just feels confident that GM soybeans are here to stay.

Clearly there are arguments to be made on both sides of the soy farm fence. The savvy producer would be wise to ask a lot of questions and figure out what works best for him or her. One question not to ask, though, is “What the heck are GM soybeans?” These days, it’s a sure sign that someone is in the wrong business, or the wrong century.