Mzansi Agriculture Talk

Agriculture

Soybean – diamond in the dirt

As the rising demand for soybean dominates international markets, critical support for the local soybean industry is now and more than ever vital. 

Soybeans are mainly processed for oil and meal (animal feed), while a small percentage is processed for human consumption. Food products such as margarine, salad dressings, mayonnaise, soy milk and soy flour were made from soybeans.

Other foods stuff packed with soybean oil include tuna, sardines, baked breads, crackers, cakes, cookies and pies.

According to the Protein Research Foundation (PRF), nearly 95% of all cultivars “currently being produced in South Africa are foreign and are mostly licensed from Argentinean companies.”

How South Africa found itself in such play of state, a revisit to 2003 might assist.

Back then, the international soy bean production reached 2 million tons, with South Africa infamous for prolonged discussions, meagrely producing 136 520 tons on 100 130 hectares. 

A partnership with PRF and ARC-GCI ensued, which led to the “breeding of two very successful soya bean cultivars known as Egret and Stork.” Unfortunately, the two South African cultivars could not be used any more as they were not glyphosate resistant (RR). 

In between this whole ordeal, the small pockets of soybean farmers retained grains as seeds, resulting in 86% of soybeans planted across provinces consisting of retained seeds. Irked by this, seed companies threatened not to provide any new soybean cultivars to South Africa unless the practice by farmers changed.

According to Dr Francois Koekemoer (Sensako), this situation led to a fragmented market with high levels of farm-saved seed and low profit margins on certified seed. So, in a nutshell, seed breeding companies were making losses. 

This led to the PRF courting Brazil and Argentina seed breeding companies for collaboration. Reaching the end of the line, towards the start of 2013 their efforts paid, as the World Soybean Research was held in Durban. What followed was a flurry of soybean investment companies, motivated by the 94% consumption rate of soybean in South Africa. 

To date, there are 20 companies estimated to be operating and selling soybean varieties in South Africa. 

In this period alone, the soybean industry was growing with more farmers convinced that soybean was the best crop rotational system in maize. According to research conducted by Prof MF Viljoen, it supported the claim that soybean exceeded the “financial results of any other crop rotation system.” 

Surely, all indications suggested that the soybean industry was South Africa’s next biggest thing. Yet, the momentum from 2015 has somewhat dissipated. Others were off the believe that government’s lethargic approach to drive soybean policy and investment caused consternation. 

In 2006, the PRF had estimated that by 2020, on one million hectares, South Africa could possibly produce 2 million tons of soybeans. Far from this feat, the Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) reported the total soybeans planted for the current season was 757 000ha. 

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