Organic soybeans: nevv frontier for Oz grovvers

Soybean producers are learning new terms such as milk, silken tofu, miso and natto, as certified organically produced highquality culinary beans offer returns of $900-$ 1 ,0001t this summer, or more than double the price of conventionally grown crops.

The immediate challenge for farmers is to feed and protect their soybeans without reverting to inorganic fertilisers and synthetic pesticides.

Growers and the Federal Government through the GRDC are supporting several varietal improvement programs from Victoria to Queensland, designed to sati sfy the 30,000 tonne ann ual domestic demand and expand potential export markets for organic culinary-grade soybeans. In the first year the project team, led by CSIRO soybean breeder Andrew James, has developed a new and simple technique to determine the yield of soymilk from both existing and new varieties using a small seed sample.

"This test enables us to benchmark new varieties against current cultivars when assessing protein, oil, soymilk and tofu yield and quality. It will streamline the selection process and ensure the new varieties will suit the changing market focus from oil to culinary products," Dr J ames said.

The focus of soybean varietal improvements in the dryland areas of northern NSW and southern Queensland will shift to light hilum, dual-purpose flour and oilseed lines and smallseeded types with grain quality suited to natto production. The five-year program is being driven by confident industry predictions of lucrative export markets in high population areas such as Hong Kong, which is seeking annually around 12,000 tonnes while Japan requires 220,000t of non-GM soybean as whole seed each year. (The estimated potential organic share of this market is 10,000 tonnes.) Organic management challenges Growers contemplating the organic option face several management constraints. As February 2002 Dr James points out, very low tolerancc for insect damage in harvested seed means growers will have to consider a lternative control methods, such as plantingearly-maturing trap or decoy crops and possibly expensive natural insecticides to meet these standards.

Project communication coordinator and DPI principal development extension officer, Greg Mills from Kingaroy sees the organic option as a worthwhile but very challenging deci sion. "We've spent 100 years perfecting conventional production systems and now there is an expectation that we will have the organic answer tomorrow. We can talk about organic crop management, but we can't deliver that production system yet," he said.

He is concerned many organic producers are small-scale and may not havc thc crop husbandry skills to manage soybean without needing conventional chemicals for in sect control and weed management.

"Organic growers wi ll have to be able to effectively monitor and scout their crops for insects and the range of organic control options is very limited. While heliothis can be controlled using BT products or Gemstar, sucking insects such as green vegetable bug are still a worry." He is sceptical about natural pyrethrum products, which may be al lowable under some organic production codes. "These are quite highly priced and deliver lower efticacy compared to the ir synthetic cousins. Natural pyrethrins are still very damaging to the whole insect ecosystem and growers can expect that pesticides used to control one insect will impact on the incidence of one or more beneficial or pest insects in anIPM approach," he said.

Weed control will require a return to strict paddock rotation, inter-row cultivation and hand chipping - all labour-intensive and costly. "While growers can expect a high price premium for organic soybeans, the harvested seed quality must also be in the premium range, si nce organic soybean production is very much directed at the quality end of the market," he sa id.

Handy reference Late last year Queensland DPI released Suggestions/or Production of Organic Soybeans in Queensland and Northern New South Wales, prepared by Ken Bullen, Senior Extension Agronomist, Gatton. This 18- page document incorporates current practices and options from national and international sources. It can be found at www.dpi.qld.gov.au and accessed by typing 'organ ic soybeans' in the SEARCH box. Toowoomba is home to the North Austra lian Soybean Association (NASA) formed on 15 September. NASA president Peter Brodie of Philp Brodie Grains said the soybean industry needed a more posi tive direction with farmers seeking a premium above the current oillmeal market values (in December, $370/t delivered Brisbane).

"Soy oil had lost favour to the monounsaturated oils such as canola and olive oil but the emerging milk, tofu and miso markets using

Australian-grown non-GM soy varieties will give a new direction to the industry. To satisfy these markets, it's important to breed more suitable large-seeded varieties with a high protein content. "Our association will benefit from the experiences of Pulse Australia and the Mungbean Association and training specialist agronomists and we are producing a video and training courses for all soybean growers.

"We aim to encourage development of more suitable soybean varieties for other products and to introduce quality assurance standards including best practices for the culinary soybean market. This market includes soy for domestic bread making, soy milk, tofu and sprouts while NASA will help develop export markets for nonGM soy products," Mr Brodie said.

Region North