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The Queen of Beans

With the growth in global demand for soybeans comes an increasing need for responsible soy production. Laura Foell, a director of the United Soybean Board, has been farming soybeans for more than two decades. In her experience, transgenic crops are an important tool for making soybean production more sustainable.

Bild vergrößern

Soybeans have accompanied Laura Foell throughout her entire life as a farmer. In the 1970s she started her farming business with con-
ventional soybeans and switched to biotech soy the early 1990s.

(© Storm Lake Pilot Tribune/Storm Lake, Iowa)

In recent decades, soybeans have become the world's foremost source of vegetable oil and protein. The global harvest amounts to 261.6 million tonnes (2010), grown on 102.4 million hectares, mainly in north and South America. Most of the world’s soybeans are fed to poultry, pigs, cattle and even farmed fish. But soybean oil has also become a major part of our diet and, more recently, is playing a role in biofuel production.

For farmers, soybeans mean stable yields and low labor costs. In particular, the introduction of systems involving herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans in combination with the complementary herbicide has increased the productivity and efficiency of soybean production dramatically: In the US the HT technology boosted the farm incomes of soybean farmers by $13.8 billion since 1996

Concepts for responsible soybean production needed

Besides the economic benefits, HT soybeans are generating interest as a tool that facilitates climate-friendly, soil-conserving farming practices.

Laura Foell, a director of the  United Soybean Board, is convinced that transgenic crops will make a significant contribution to environmentally sustainable soybean production: “With biotech crops, farmers can produce acceptable yields with less labor and less energy, using more environmentally friendly farming regimes.”

Laura Foell knows that there is an urgent need for farming concepts to facilitate responsible soybean production. A growing world population and high demand for meat and dairy products in richer countries have led to an explosive increase in the demand for soy in recent decades: between 1961 and 2009, global soy production expanded nearly 10-fold, and it has doubled since the mid-1990s. Yet, in South America- one of the largest soybean producers- conversion of natural habitats into agricultural land for soybean farming threatens ecosystems, and deforestation contributes to climate change. International initiatives have therefore encouraged the development of  sustainable farming concepts and global certification schemes for responsible soybean production. Better management practices have recently been outlined in the  U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol . These include zoning, to protect biodiverse grasslands, and alternatives to plowing, such as no-tillage (“no-till”) management. The latter enables farmers to seed directly into mulch or stubble fields without plowing. The use of such soil conservation practices has reduced soil erosion in the US by 66% since 1980.

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Soybeans as far as the eye can reach. The US is one of the three largest soybean producers worldwide. Because of the high demand for cattle feed, the global demand for soy has doubled since the mid-1990s.



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Laura Foell has learned the positive impacts of no-tillage practices through her own experience. She and her husband run
a 400 ha farm in Iowa.

(© Storm Lake Pilot Tribune/Storm Lake, Iowa)

Laura Foell: A farmer goes biotech

Laura Foell has learned the positive impacts of no-till practice through her own experience. She and her husband run a 400 ha farm in Iowa, growing asparagus and transgenic corn and soybeans. To her, sustainability is not just a popular buzzword. Since the early 90s the couple has established a variety of best-management practices on the farm, including wildflower fields to increase pollinator diversity,
grass waterways,  field borders and
buffer strips.

In 1996 the couple began to grow herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans. “We first tried it on a little field and achieved very good results,” says Laura Foell. She was particularly convinced by the sustainability benefits: weed management with herbicide-resistant crops proved so effective that the couple was able to forgo plowing and switch to  no-till farming practices. Deep plowing is the conventional weed management practice by turning the soil over to bury weeds.

Better management with minimal soil disturbance

By contrast no-till production leaves virtually all crop residues on the surface, resulting in reduced soil degradation and less damage to the soil structure. The fact that the ground is covered with crop residues preserves moisture but also encourages the development of a richer soil life, which can improve nutrient recycling.

For instance, leaving the soil undisturbed results in a higher number of earthworms and increased levels of organic matter in the long run.Conservation tillage also has a very low carbon footprint: the carbon loss following conventional plowing is approximately 14 times higher than with unplowed soil. Mechanical weed management with deep plowing requires many more tillage operations which in turn require more diesel fuel. Additionally, regular plowing releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when soil carbon is oxidized. Scientists estimate that if Europe used only conventional tillage, the process related carbon dioxide emissions, also from cultivated soil could double.

“Our soil contains more earthworms now and has better water-holding capacities, since we use conservation tillage in combination with HT crops. We have also managed to halve the number of herbicide applications, and we need less machinery and consume only half the amount of diesel. Our tractor is actually 15 years old but there was just no need to replace it,” says Laura Foell, explaining the impact no-till has had on her business. For her, switching from conventional to HT soybeans was the crucial step that enabled her to apply this method successfully: “We have tried no-till with conventional crops before but the herbicide management was just not as effective.”

Social sustainability is important to young farmers

To Laura Foell, sustainable farming concepts also have an important social aspect: “On our farm, no-till management saves us 500 working hours per year. This allows us and other farmers to engage in activities on the side, such as consumer information programs. It also brings a significant change to the social life of farmers and makes it more attractive for young people to stay in the farming business.”

Feed for Europe’s farm animals

Europe’s reluctant attitude towards transgenic crops is a missed opportunity in Laura Foell’s view: “I have been to several farmers’ meetings in Europe and was very surprised when UK farmers told us they spray herbicides twice as many times as we do. My impression is that farmers in many European countries would like to benefit from the advantages of this technique. But the current restrictions in the EU make this impossible. Farmers should at least have a choice, including using the latest farming techniques available.”

Laura Foell thinks that rejecting GM soy imports will be a dangerous path for European agriculture. Although many European consumers are opposed to GM crops in general, there are currently no native alternatives that could effectively fill the “protein gap” in Europe’s feed supply. The EU is number two in the world ranking of importers, importing approximately 35 million tonnes of soybeans and soybean meal per year. This means that the EU has outsourced its main feed production, entailing large areas of arable land outside its borders. “By rejecting GM crops, Europe is putting its livestock farming at risk.”, says Laura Foell.

As much as necessary, as little as possible

Despite the benefits GM crops have had for her business, Laura Foell does not claim that GM crops are the magic bullet for sustainable agriculture: “The most important thing is that farmers develop a farming regime that is perfectly adapted to the conditions on their farm.” The stewardship programs she engages in also encourage farmers to use sustainable techniques such as crop rotation and precision farming, to use fertilizers and herbicides as little and in as localized a manner as possible, and to prevent weed resistance.

Consumers and farmers need to work on the same side

Laura Foell’s wish for the future is for consumers to gain a better understanding of modern crop production and to hear more about what farmers are doing to protect their land. In her opinion, farmers and consumers are on the same side: “Consumers ask for good quality and we ask for the same. I have a vegetable garden that I water with the well on our farm. The responsible use of our land is essential to us!”

However, the jungle of food labels in modern supermarkets makes it difficult for consumers to gain a clear understanding of what lies behind categories such as “local”, “organic”, “biotech” or “free range”. Laura Foell actively supports consumer information programs and thinks farmers should take on some of the responsibility for clearing up the confusion. Her hope is that programs that enable consumers to hear the story from the farmer’s side will help make food production more transparent. “Consumers also need to know that responsible food production and the cultivation of biotech crops is no contradiction. Growing GM crops has actually made us more aware of conservation and sustainable farming.”

An EU Research Project

What are the risks of growing GM crops?

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have addressed the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants. Yet the existing evidence on the effects of GM plants is often contradictory and the quality of scientific research varies widely.

Therefore, the GRACE project will establish new tools for assessing the quality of existing studies and will conduct comprehensive reviews to identify health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM plants.

More information


GMO Soybeans & Sustainability

Less soil erosion and fuel consumption: herbicide tolerant soybeans are promoting sustainable cultivation methods.


Glyphosate in European agriculture

Interview with a farmer

Glyphosate containing herbicides are not only used in fields with GM crops. They also allow conventional farmers to sow directly into stubble fields without ploughing. Glyphosate has replaced mechanical weed control in many crops and has had an important impact on agricultural practices and crop yields in Europe over the past few decades.

European Glyphosate Task Force

Animation: The Authorisation Process in Motion!
Applying, consulting, and making a decision: The long and winding road to GMO authorisation in EU
start animation
 Biosafety research:

Impact of Bt maize on
insect communities

Impact of Bt maize on
honey bees

More videos

Jenny asks: How does the PCR method work?

At Germany's Institute for the Chemical and Veterinary Analysis of Food (CVUA) in Freiburg they use the PCR method to test food for traces of GM plants.

Jenny asks: How does Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer work?

Agrobacteria are a naturally occurring species of soil bacteria, which are able to transfer genes to plant cells. But how does this work? Jenny asks Thorsten Manthey of RLP AgroScience.


Promise and Reality

A Nature special issue

"The introduction of the first transgenic plant 30 years ago heralded the start of a second green revolution, providing food to the starving, profits to farmers and environmental benefits to boot. Many GM crops fulfilled the promise. But their success has been mired in controversy with many questioning their safety, their profitability and their green credentials. A polarized debate has left little room for consensus.

In this special issue, Nature explores the hopes, the fears, the reality and the future."

(Source: Nature)

Nature's special issue

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