Tech Talk: She-power in soybean breeding
Updated 19:32, 29-May-2023
By Zhao Chenchen

The Chinese people love their soybeans - from soybean milk and bean sprouts to, of course, tofu. And this national favorite is getting some help from scientists trying to optimize it for the ultimate dining experience.

Li Weiyu, a soybean breeder from Beijing University of Agriculture, is dedicated to designing soybean varieties best suited for human consumption.

"I have this particular association with soybean as it originated in China," Li told CGTN.

"Plus, I really love soymilk. That's why I chose this path for soybean breeding" Li said.

But developing a breed that satisfies our taste buds and provides the right amount of nutrition that the body needs isn't easy. It takes Li months of field work under the sun, dripping in sweat and enduring mosquito bites, over a handful of years.

"Breeding work is certainly very hard, and mostly involves going to the field," said Li.

Li would just wear T-shirt and shorts and leaves her lab for the outdoors between May and October. Most research work takes place in July or August – the hottest time in Beijing.

Her works include hybrid experiments, growth observation, and disease resistance investigation.

After the autumn harvest, Li and her students continue the work, counting seeds per pod, pods per plant, weight per 100 seeds, and yield per unit.

During her teaching and researching work at the university over the past decade, Li has participated in breeding three varieties optimal for soymilk.

"It usually takes six to eight years to have a breed certificated, followed by two years of comparison tests in designated fields and one year of production tests," Li said.

One of the varieties that Li led for breeding, Beinong-109, is the first black soybean patented in Beijing that can reach an average yield 162.1 kilograms per mu (667 square meters).

Li has brought Beinong-109 to Beijing's countryside and signed deals with seed companies to enhance the income of farmers growing this type.

Based on the huge seed data base in China and genetic selection technology, Li is confident in her ability to design more varieties in the future.

Soybean consumption in China

China consumes about 100 million tonnes of soybean each year, with about 20 million tonnes produced domestically and the rest imported.

Although soybean originated in China, the country's available farming area cannot meet the demand of its nearly 1.4 billion population.

According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, the soybean growing area in China in 2022 was 154 million mu (10.27 million hectares), a 21.7 percent increase from the previous year.

Its average yield per mu was 132 kilograms, far less than that in the United States and Brazil, which are above 230 kilograms per mu.

The highest yield reached 442 kg per mu in northwest China's Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and 311.2 kg per mu in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the country's main soybean production base.

However, most of the domestically grown soybeans are for making soybean products like soymilk and tofu. The imported ones, which are usually genetically modified, are used for oil extraction and feed production for livestock.

Currently, China is the world's largest producer and consumer of non-genetically modified soybeans.

Therefore, China still needs to cultivate breeds fit for different applications, including high-oil content soybeans, high-yield ones, or those that are more disease resistant.

China is also promoting the intercropping method of planting soybeans and corn in alternate strips or bands within the same field. Such method can increase crop yield, improve soil fertility, and reduce the incidence of pests and diseases.

Li hopes to design a variety that eliminates the earthy taste in soymilk and a type that increases the protein content of bean sprouts.

Videographer: Gao Peng

Video editor: Qi Jianqiang

Graphic designer: Jia Jieqiong

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