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Homegrown Soybeans are Making a Comeback in Indonesia Thanks to New Varieties Developed Using Irradiation

Nur Anidah who coordinates agricultural development in the region speaks with growers of the Mutiara 1 soybean variety in Polman area, West Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Photo: BATAN)

Nur Anidah who coordinates agricultural development in the region speaks with growers of the Mutiara 1 soybean variety in Polman area, West Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Photo: BATAN)

Soybean products such as tofu and tempeh are staples in Indonesian cuisine and important protein sources for much of the population. Over 2 million tons of soybeans are consumed in Indonesia every year, but only around 800 000 tons are produced domestically. With national soybean production unable to meet even half of the demand, Indonesia depends on soybean imports – a situation that the government is looking to change by using new soybean varieties developed with irradiation.

In the 1990s, national soybean production began to decline due to low yields and productivity, negatively impacting farmers' income. This made farmers opt for other, higher-value crops such as rice and corn. For soybeans to be more attractive to farmers, new varieties with higher productivity were needed.

“Efforts towards self-sufficiency in soybean production are not only to meet the food needs of the country, but also to support the national agriculture industry,” said Winda Puspitasari, a researcher in the Isotope and Radiation Application Center at the National Nuclear Energy Agency of Indonesia (BATAN).

In 2018, the government launched a programme to reinvigorate the national soybean industry. The four-pronged plan focuses on optimizing land use, production systems, pest control and cultivation methods. The goal is to gradually taper off soybean imports and make Indonesia fully self-sufficient.

As part of the programme, the government is using new soybean varieties developed by BATAN, working with the IAEA in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Over the last thirty years, BATAN has developed 12 varieties of soybean through plant mutation breeding (see What is plant mutation breeding?), with desirable characteristics such as high yield, increased tolerance to soil acidity, larger seed size, high protein content and early maturity.

“Developing high quality soybean varieties with high yields can help make soybean production a more lucrative option, which can stimulate economic growth for farmers, producers and entrepreneurs,” said Azri Kusuma Dewi, a plant breeder at BATAN.

Higher and more stable yields

One soybean variety that continues to be popular with farmers ten years after its original release is Mutiara 1. Released in 2010, it has higher productivity when compared to local varieties due to its super large seed size. Muhammad Yunus, who works for the Ministry of Agriculture, has overseen farmers in the Polewali Mandar area – a western costal region of Indonesia – grow 500 acres of Mutiara 1. “Farmers like this variety not only because of its large seeds which allow higher yields but also because of the improved taste.  But the availability of enough seeds - even for local cultivation - remains a challenge due to the short shelf-life of soybean seeds,” said Yunus.

The IAEA and FAO are working with BATAN to set up two cold-storage facilities in Jakarta for storing multiplied seeds of new and improved soybean varieties prior to seasonal planting, making more seeds available to farmers year-round.

Revitalizing suboptimal land

Two of the newest released soybean varieties, Kemuning 1 and Kemuning 2, thrive in dry, acidic soils where local soybean varieties and other crops struggle to grow. Released in 2019, these varieties produce 3 tons per hectare compared to 2.2 tons per hectare of the local variety.

"With large tracts of land in Indonesia considered suboptimal for most crops, Kemuning 1 and Kemuning 2 help to not only expand soybean production but also to optimize land use," said Abdelbagi Mukhtar Ali Ghanim, a plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “These two new varieties mean that farmers do not necessarily have to stop producing other crops, but they can instead repurpose land that may have otherwise been underutilized or even deemed completely unusable.”

Later this year, BATAN will release another soybean variety that matures faster than local varieties. This shorter growing time means that farmers can fit this variety within existing crop rotations after another annual seasonal crop such as rice – meaning an additional harvest and additional income.  Shorter crop duration also lowers the likelihood of crop losses due to late-season bad weather, insect infestations, lack of soil moisture or disease.  

The soybean varieties now being rolled out by BATAN are part of a longstanding plant breeding programme established with support from the IAEA and FAO. Since 1997, BATAN has received support from the IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme, to breed new plant varieties. This ongoing support has included technical assistance, fellowships throughout the world, training at IAEA laboratories, national workshops and the provision of equipment.

Through plant breeding techniques, soybean varieties having higher and more stable yields are contributing to achieving national soybean self-sufficiency in Indonesia. (Photo: BATAN)

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