History of Soybean Variety Development, Breeding and Genetic Engineering (1902-2020)

William Shurtleff, Akiko AoyagiISBN: 978-1-948436-20-5

Publication Date: 2020 June 22

Number of References in Bibliography: 4434

Earliest Reference: 1902

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Brief Chronology/Timeline of Development of Soybean Varieties

1879 – New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station begins testing several soybean varieties.

1898 – No more than eight soybean varieties are grown in the United States. This year the USDA Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction begins a program of introducing seeds and plants to the United States, recording each introduced variety under a unique, sequential ‘PI’ designation. The key figure behind this work was David Fairchild. By 1923 more than 1,000 varieties had been introduced.

1903 – American Breeders Association (ABA) is founded. It becomes the main organization for the dissemination of information on both theoretical and applied genetics, heredity and breeding to agriculturists. In 1909 the association is discontinued and replaced by the American Genetic Association; its periodical is renamed The Journal of Heredity.

1905 – William Bateson, an English biologist (1861-1926), coins the word “genetics.” He also popularizes the largely-forgotten work of Gregor Mendell.

1906 – Ball of the USDA describes the 23 soybean varieties known in the USA.

1907 – William J. Morse starts to work for the USDA at the invitation of Charles V. Piper. There are probably less than 50,000 acres of soybeans in the whole country.

“If there ever was a one-man-made crop in this country, it is the soybean. And W.J. Morse is the man” (Country Gentleman, 1939, March).

1921 – “Inheritance of cotyledon, seed-coat, hilum and pubescence colors in soy-beans,” by Clyde M. Woodworth is published in the journal Genetics. Based on his 1920 PhD thesis, this is the earliest document seen concerning U.S. genetic research on soy beans.

1925-1927 – USDA plant explorer P.H. Dorsett (and his son) collects nearly 1,500 soybean types, largely from Manchuria.

1928-31 – The Dorsett-Morse Expedition to East Asia sends back 4,500 soybean varieties from Japan, Manchuria, China and Korea. They write a daily log of their expedition.

From 1924 to 1932, 6,651 soybean accessions are introduced. Most are sent to the USDA’s Arlington Farm or to Agricultural Experiment Stations for testing. During the early periods of introduction no attempt is made to save all the strains introduced and a majority of them are discarded. Only the best are kept along with some of the unusual types.

1930 May 23 – The Townsend-Purnell Plant Act, the first act that allows Americans to patent plants, is signed into law by President Herbert Hoover. David Fairchild is a member of the committee that develops this act. Canada has a similar but previous act.

1936 March 16 – The USDA opens the U.S. Regional Soybean Laboratory in Illinois. A major focus is soybean breeding.

1941 – The number of acres of soybeans harvested for seed passes the soybean acreage used for forage.

1941 – The National Soybean Crop Improvement Council is established by the National Soybean Processors Association.

1941 Dec. 7 – The United States enters World War II. With its imports of oilseed crops cut off by the war, a major effort, with financial incentives, is made to increase soybean production.

1943 – Edgar Hartwig is the first soybean breeder on the East Coast of the United States.

1948 – The first U.S. germplasm collection and preservation is established at Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa; north central region). One could argue that there were small germplasm collections at various locations in the USA before this time, but this was the first one that was systematic, government sponsored, based on modern principles, and included a broad spectrum of crops. The federal law establishing four Regional Plant Introduction Stations was passed in 1946.

1949 – In recognition of the need to preserve the germplasm of this important crop and make it readily available, Martin G. Weiss of the USDA and Jackson L. Cartter of the U.S. Regional Soybean Laboratory at Urbana, Illinois, initiated the development of America's first comprehensive soybean germplasm collection in 1949. In 1951, Edgar E.

Hartwig became curator of the southern soybean germplasm collection (the later strains, maturity group V and later) located at Stoneville, Mississippi. Richard Bernard became curator of the northern collection (the earlier strains, group IV and earlier) at Urbana in 1954. It was the lack of such germplasm collections that explains why most of the soybeans collected by Dorsett and Morse no longer exist.

The guiding principle has been to maintain the basic genetic diversity of the soybean and its wild relatives by maintaining all cultivars and introductions.

1949 and 1950 – The USDA and state agricultural experiment stations are asked to submit samples of all introduced strains and old U.S. cultivars. From the 7,873 PI strains introduced before 1945, 1,659 strains were obtained, including 138 old U.S. cultivars that originated from introductions (see Table).

1963 – USDA starts large-scale cooperative soybean research with state agricultural stations, in the north, and then the south.

Breeding Objectives – Improved yield, pest resistance, lodging resistance, and shattering resistance, and high protein + oil. Before 1970 most U.S. soybeans are bred by public breeders from the USDA, and agricultural colleges and experiment stations.

1970 Dec. 24 – The Plant Varieties Protection Act of 1970 (PVPA) is signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. It extends patent protection to plant varieties reproduced sexually, by seeds.

1972 – The National Academy of Sciences’ National Research council releases an influential report on the genetic vulnerability of major crops. The soybean is named as one of these. This results in and ongoing effort by soybean breeders and geneticists to broaden the crop’s genetic base by collecting new germplasm and adding it to elite soybean varieties.

1972 Sept. – Dr. Richard Bernard, USDA soybean breeder at the University of Illinois and curator of the USDA northern Soybean Germplasm collection travels to Japan and Korea on the first major soybean germplasm collection since 1931. He increases the size of the collection by 30-50% – and increases its genetic diversity.

1977 Feb. – The Commercial Soybean Breeders is organized. The membership includes 35 individuals who are employed by 28 companies. By 1979 the number of breeders in the organization totals 39, by 1981 it has increased to 51, and by 1984 it has increased to 63 breeders employed by 30 companies.

1980 – Germplasm exchange and cooperative research with the People’s Republic of China.

1980 June – U.S. Supreme Court rules that man-made organisms created by genetic manipulation can be granted copyright protection. This further opens the door to private soybean breeders.

1981 April – According to James E. Specht, PhD, "The gradual increase in soybean yields in the United States has been due to a combination of improved varieties (i.e., genetic technology) and improved production technology.” “Prior to about 1945, varieties were simply releases of plant introductions from the Orient or pure line selections from these. The calculated annual yield gain trend for pre-1945 releases was near zero. After 1945, varieties were developed from selection within the progenies derived from the planned hybridization of two parents. In effect, the implementation of a different breeding procedure caused a 'quantum jump' in yield potential of about 36% for maturity group II varieties based on 1943 trend line intercepts (Figure 1). The average 'quantum jump' considering all maturity groups was 25%!”

1983 Jan. 20 – The Wall Street Journal publishes an article titled “Monsanto scientists say they succeeded in inserting foreign gene into plant cells.” The author, J.E. Bishop, comments that this “would mark a major new development in the decade-old field of genetic engineering.”

1983 April – Monsanto purchases Jacob Hartz Seed Co. (Stuttgart, Arkansas). Hartz first produced soybeans for seed in 1926.

1985-1988 – Protection under the Utility Patent Act, related to plants in general and soybeans in particular, becomes more important (especially after 1988 amendments) than protection under the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 (Sibley 1991).

1985– Canada takes the lead, worldwide, in developing an identity preserved system for soybeans and other grains. This is used for “food-grade” soybeans, non-GMO soybeans, organically grown soybeans, etc. The pioneers in developing this system were Paul King and his father (who founded King Grain) and W.G. Thompson & Sons Limited (Blenheim, Ontario) (Cooper 2000).

1992 mid-March – An article in Soybean Digest titled “Breeders tailor soybeans for the 21st century” by Susan Davis states: “Biotechnology will also change the use of herbicides. By 1996 Monsanto expects the seed industry to release Roundup-resistant soybean varieties. Roundup-resistant seed grown in the Midwest in 1989 and 1990 had lower than hoped for yields and tolerance. But introduction of new genes should enable researchers to develop varieties with a higher tolerance to Roundup. The goal is to have soybeans sprayed with Roundup to yield well while looking as though they haven't been sprayed, says Xavier Delannay, Monsanto's manager for applied genetics.”

1995 Mid-Feb. – An advertorial by Pioneer Hi-Bred in Soybean Digest states that low-linolenic acid soybeans are now available from Pioneer. They must be channeled into Pioneer's low-linolenic identity-preserved (IP) program. Now entering its second year,…”

1996 spring – Monsanto launches Roundup Ready transgenic/genetically-engineered soybeans. It convinces the FDA not to regulate them or test them for food safety on the doctrine that they are “substantially equivalent” to regular soybeans. Monsanto’s theory is that when you introduce a new gene from another species into a plant, nothing else in the plant changes. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans have been implanted with a gene from a petunia which prevents the herbicide from killing the soybean plants while it kills every weed in the soybean field.

Monsanto hopes the new seed, mixed with regular soybeans, will be readily accepted in export markets. But many European countries refuse to take them, demanding that the FDA prove that they are safe in long-term use as feed and food.

However American soybean growers quickly embrace the new technology. Within ten years of its introduction, the great majority of soybean acres in the United States were planted to herbicide-resistant, transgenic soybeans.

The terms “non-GMO” and “not genetically modified” are incorrect – even though they have come to be widely used. Ever since crop plants were domesticated, ancient farmers began to modify them to make them better. The earliest soybeans, for example, were viny and procumbent in growth habit. They had very small black seeds, which shattered (scattered). Farmers saved the seed of any soybean plant that grew upright, had larger seeds, and held its seeds longer – to plant next time. The new seeds were genetically modified – naturally.

Starting in the 1920s, when soybean breeders and geneticists began to breed better soybeans, they used what are now called traditional techniques of selection and crossing.

1999 Sept. 30 – The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “DuPont Co.: Accord to purchase 80% of Pioneer is set to close,” states: Tomorrow, DuPont Co. is expected to close its $7.7 billion cash and stock purchase of the 80% of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. that it doesn't already own. A major chemicals company from Wilmington, Delaware, DuPont is moving into the field of seed biotechnology.

1999 Oct. – The United Soybean Board, in its “National report on consumer attitudes about nutrition – 1999-2000,” states: “Consumer perceptions of genetically modified food, biotechnology, and labeling: Aware of the term “genetically modified food” – 42% in 1999 vs. 48% in 1998; aware of “biotechnology” – 36% in 1999 vs. 41% in 1998. “Consumers continue to view biotechnology more favorably than genetically modified. When asked if they would continue to purchase a product with these terms on the label, 71% said yes or maybe to the term biotechnology, while 58% said yes or maybe to the term genetically modified.”

2000 March 31 – Monsanto, the world's leading agricultural biotech company, merges with Pharmacia & Upjohn (a large pharmaceutical company), and the new company is renamed Pharmacia Corporation. During the year 2000 Pharmacia's share price increased 72%.

Monsanto's products include Roundup, “the world's best-selling herbicide, and leading seed brands such as DeKalb and Asgrow. Sales of Roundup and Monsanto's glyphosate herbicides exceed those of the next six leading herbicides combined.”

2000 Sept. – Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expires. The company meets generic competition with new proprietary formulations of its herbicide.

2004 Feb. – As predicted, weeds are developing resistance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Horseweed (marestail) is the main resister, followed by waterhemp. With time, more and more weeds develop resistance, which is often countered with the use of more and stronger herbicides.

2005 summer – The Non-GMO Project starts, certifying that certain consumer products do not contain any genetically-engineered ingredients. The Project's widely-recognized logo with an orange butterfly on a green "V" originated in the fall of 2007 – probably in September.

2007 July 1 – A long, important article in the New York Times titled “A challenge to gene theory, a tougher look at biotech,” by Denise Caruso, states: “Last month, a consortium of scientists published findings that challenge the traditional view of how genes function. The exhaustive four-year effort was organized by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute and carried out by 35 groups from 80 organizations around the world. To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might not be a 'tidy collection of independent genes' after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease. Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. According to the institute, these findings will challenge scientists 'to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do.' The rest of this article is fascinating; read it!

2008 – 92% of all farmers growing soybeans in the United States grow genetically engineered soybeans. By 2012 about 95% of U.S. soybean acres are planted to genetically-engineered crops.

2012 Feb. – The number of glyphosate-resistant weeds, called superweeds, is growing rapidly. So far, in Iowa, three glyphosate-resistant weeds have been confirmed: Waterhemp, horseweed, and ragweed. In the USA, 13 weeds are currently resistant to glyphosate, and 21 weeds are resistant worldwide (Corn and Soybean Digest, p. 18-19, 42-43).

By 2012, herbicide use on herbicide-tolerant crops was increasing by about 25% a year (Benbrook, in Environmental Sciences Europe).

2015Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer our Food has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, by Steven M. Druker is published (528 p.). This is by far the best book seen to date on the problems with genetic engineering.

2016 Sept. 15 – Bayer AG of Germany has offered $66 billion in an all-cash deal to acquire Monsanto Co. The deals faces politically charged scrutiny.

2017 May – Syngenta and ChemChina merge, with ChemChina paying Syngenta shareholders about $44 billion. It is the largest ever acquisition of a foreign company by a Chinese company. Syngenta is the Swiss seeds and pesticides group.

2017 Aug. 31 – Dow Chemical and Dupont merge (in an all-stock transaction) to become DowDuPont, the world's largest chemical company. The intention to merge was announced on 11 Dec. 2015. Within 18 months of the completed merger the company was split into three publicly-traded companies with focuses on the following: agriculture, materials science, and specialty products. The agriculture division is named Corteva Agriscience – which unites Dow and DuPont's seed and crop protection unit, with an approximate revenue of $16 billion.

2017 Nov.Whitewash: the Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam published (xiv, 305 p). An experienced researcher and writer, she argues convincingly that Roundup causes cancer – non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

2018 Aug. 10 – A San Francisco jury finds that Roundup caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma in groundskeeper Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson. The jury awards him $39.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages – to punish Monsanto. It was shown that Monsanto was aware of this risk but failed to notify users.

2020 June – An estimated 94% of the soybean acres in the United States are planted to genetically engineered soybeans.

Click here to download the full text to open and read book History of Soybean Variety Development, Breeding and Genetic Engineering (1902-2020)