Otsuka People Talk

July 2014

Johann Vollmann, Assoc. Prof. BOKU - University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna

My dream is that everybody in the world can afford high quality, healthy food. I hope that soybeans can help us achieve that.

Over 25 years of research, Vollmann has cultivated as many as 3,000 different genetic varieties of soybean, while contributing to domestic production of edible soybeans in Austria.

For scientists, it's very important to be in a creative environment, so sometimes it's like being a small boy or girl playing a game, and while you're playing you may have some fantastic ideas. That's why my other playground is the soybean field.

If you're a researcher, you can't limit your work to 9-5. Sometimes you may suddenly have an idea, and think "I want to try this out!", then the next morning you come to the institute, you try it out to see whether it works or not. Creativity is not something that you can buy in a shop or plan ahead for, it needs the right environment, and you need to have to the right people around you.

History of soybean cultivation in Europe

In the early 1870s, a Professor of Plant Science, Friedrich Haberlandt, from BOKU University attended the Viennese World Exposition and became interested in the soybeans that were exhibited by the Japanese and Chinese delegations. He planted some of the soybean seeds he obtained there, and found that they could be grown in Europe. This was a very important finding, for which he became quite famous. Unfortunately, he died shortly afterwards in 1878.

After that, although research continued, no one knew what to do with soybeans. At that time, Europe, unlike Asia, had no soybean tradition, and people did not know how to cook and use them in meals, or even how to use them as animal feed. So, gradually soybeans were forgotten, and it was only in the mid-1980s that people started to work on soybeans again in Austria and other European countries.

Convinced of the need for soybeans

The main reason I do this is because I am convinced that we need soybeans here. Austria and many other European countries are importing a lot of soybeans from South America and other parts of the world, but we could produce them here. Even if not all that we need, we could still produce a lot of food here. It makes sense for the environment and it makes sense for human nutrition. That's why I developed this passion for soybeans, and I'm always happy when I drive around countries and see soybeans feed the suburbs.

I got in touch with Otsuka Pharmaceutical in 2008. The first person who came here and whom I met was actually Mr. Akihiko Otsuka himself. He was on tour around Europe to learn about soybean activities in European companies when he visited to see what we were doing here at the university in Vienna.

Following that, other staff from Otsuka also visited, and I have now travelled to Japan many times. I have been a student of Mr. Daisuke Watanabe of Otsuka, and sometimes we do it the other way around - I become the teacher and he is the student. Mr. Watanabe helped us develop soybeans which are less allergenic for consumers, something that we think will be a very important contribution to soy food safety in the future.