Young soybean plants. Picture: 123RF/IGOR STEVANOVIC
Young soybean plants. Picture: 123RF/IGOR STEVANOVIC

Moscow — Just below the Arctic tundra, in the vast plains that blanket much of northern Russia, a once-unthinkable business is taking hold: soybean farming.

It’s the result of years of rising global temperatures, which are thawing the permafrost and turning the land into fertile soil, and now, agronomist Gennady Bochkovsky is helping take the crop to the next frontier, testing whether the beans can handle the upper areas of the Moscow region. So far, he says, the results are promising.

“Sprouts have emerged and they look beautiful,” said Bochkovsky, who worked with farming company TulamashAgro to replace peas with soybeans on 1,400ha.

Soybeans in Russia embody a trend that’s sweeping the globe: warming weather is pushing crops further towards the poles than they’ve ever grown before. In the US, North Dakota has transformed into a major corn grower, and the UK has seen a rapid expansion in wine grapes.

“You can see the climate is changing — there’s more warmth and the crops that didn’t grow here before can now be successful,” Bochkovsky said.

While Russian soybean farmers are seeing some benefits from warming weather, climate change has been wreaking havoc on global food production. Drought has hampered crop output this year in parts of Uruguay, New Zealand, Europe and Vietnam. Even Russia and the rest of the Black Sea region has seen the ill-effects of changing weather patterns in recent years, with drier conditions threatening the region’s wheat crop.

The UN has said that climate change is one of the factors that’s exacerbated food insecurity, which means the world won’t reach a target to eliminate hunger by 2030.

This is happening at time when the coronavirus pandemic has up-ended normal supply chains and prevented food from getting where it needs to be. A period of extreme weather that devastates harvests could force countries to deploy more protectionist food policies, creating a ripple effect through global trade.

Concerns over access to wheat and other staples led nations including Kazakhstan and Russia to introduce export restrictions earlier this year, though most countries have since backed off those restrictions and global grain supplies look to be ample.

In Russia, farmers have embraced the opportunity to grow profitable soybeans. The oilseed is processed into animal feed, and demand has been strong amid a boom for livestock production. In fact, the nation still relies on imports of about 1-million tonnes of soy, so there’s more scope for domestic harvests to keep rising.

Soybeans were planted on 1.1-million hectares in 2019 in central Russia, an 18-fold increase over the past decade and equal to about 7% of the total crop land in that part of the country.

“The country needed more soybeans, and from an economic perspective, it’s better to grow them domestically,” said Sergei Zelentsov, who heads the soybean department at the Pustovoit All-Russian Research Institute of Oil Crops.

The latest varieties of northern soybeans can grow if temperatures rise above 10°C for long enough, according to Margarita Fadeyeva, a soybean breeder at the Chuvash Research and Development Institute of Agriculture. In northern latitudes, they need about 100 days of favourable weather to ripen.

Yields double

Yields have doubled over the past decade while output almost quadrupled, Russian government data shows. That’s also been helped by better seeds coming to market.

Still, there are tricks to getting the soy to do well in new areas.

The plants shouldn’t be in the shadow from hills or trees so they get as much sun as possible, said Bochkovsky, the Moscow region agronomist. And it’s necessary to level the fields or the harvesters will pass over some beans, which can hang as low as 4cm from the ground.

Zelentsov, of the research institute, is hopeful that the soy expansion can continue, and he’s ready to tackle even more unthinkable conditions. His institute has collaborated with Siberian researchers to develop a variety that can grow even if there’s permafrost 2m underneath the topsoil.

“I used to be a pessimist about the prospects of growing soybeans in central Russia, but now I see that I was wrong,” said Dmitry Rylko, director-general at the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies, a consultant in Moscow. “I undere-stimated the scale of climate change. I under-estimated the potential of plant breeding.”

Bloomberg

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