Business & Policy
By Lisa McLean
Here's why premium soybeans demand more TLC.
It is true that food-grade, identity preserved soybeans can be more challenging
to produce, but the premiums earned on those round, white beans are often worth
the investment for Ontario growers. That is because areas such as Japan, Canada's
number one customer of food-grade soybeans, require aesthetic and functional
traits that date back 5000 years to that region's most valued agricultural traditions.
And while the extra care that premium beans demand can sometimes seem more
of a thorn in the grower's side, it is essential to provide Asian customers
with the assurance that the beans they purchase are custom tailored with the
traits they find most desirable.
"One of the most valued qualities international customers find specific
to Canada is our willingness to listen to the customer, and our ability to follow
through with bringing them what they want, not what we want to sell them,"
says Marty Huzevka, chair of the Canadian Soybean Export Association. "Canadian
soybean breeders, growers and exporters have been working together with these
customers over the years to find solutions that are both cost-effective and
As Canadian breeders improved at communicating directly with Asian customers,
varieties became increasingly tailored to meet protein, colour, shape and flavour
needs (see Premium traits). Many of the IP food-grade varieties grown in Canada
are sold around the world to countries such as Japan, China and Singapore, where
soybeans are processed into tofu (bean curds), soy beverage (soy protein and
water), miso (paste) and natto (a sticky, fermented breakfast food made from
small, whole soybeans). Each end-use requires a unique kind of soybean that
lends itself to the ideal appearance, texture, composition and shelf life.
"The wonderful thing about our IP system is that it allows us to use brand
marketing techniques on what was once a traditional commodity," says Huzevka.
"In the future, varieties will be even more market-specific, and with that
will come more diversity in premiums. Since it can sometimes be hard to tell
varieties apart from visual appearance, the national, 'Made in Canada' IP system
most exporters are now adopting will allow our customers comfort in knowing
we can deliver what we promise under terms of the contract."
Asian populations view many soybean food products with such great reverence
that most recipes have remained essentially the same for thousands of years.
Conventional tofu, for example, is made with only three ingredients: soybeans,
water and coagulant. Soybean quality and composition are key to making a quality
finished product. Tofu colour, firmness and flavour are critical to the processor
and the consumer.
"In the case of tofu, sometimes finding the right variety can come down
to the opinions of two or three quality control people in the lab in Japan,"
says John Van Herk, soybean breeder for Blenheim, Ontario, based Hyland Seeds.
"Once processors find a variety that they prefer for a specific product
such as tofu, that variety is usually marketable for at least five years."
There are a number of agronomic practices that affect soybean traits. Soybeans
can easily become weed-stained or dirt-tagged, affecting soybeans' value to
a processor who relies on clean raw materials. Growing large, high protein,
rounder seeded varieties that are so valued on the premium market can affect
a crop's yield. To compensate for the demands, Asian customers have typically
been willing to pay those premium prices, but value has become more of a concern
since recent changes to Asia's economy.
"Customers are becoming more price sensitive, and they're putting more
emphasis on price as influenced by yield and functional properties," says
Van Herk. "Fortunately, breeders are able to offer a wider range of products
to meet these newest demands. Our long-standing working relationship helps maintain
Whatever those traits may be, an IP system enables the importer to take comfort
in being able to trace the flow of special trait soybean lots through stages
of seed, production, processing and export.
"The Canadian soybean industry will preserve its place in world soyfood
markets by continuing to offer exciting new varieties grown under our national
IP program, the Canadian Identity Preserved Recognition System (CIPRS),"
says Huzevka. "This is an exciting time to be in the soybean supply chain
and we'll continue to be successful by keeping an eye on the needs of the consumer
and the traits they're looking for." -30-
These are some of the most valued
traits, and some reasons behind them.
Higher protein – Protein is the major
component of traditional soy products such as soy beverage (known as soy 'milk')
and tofu. A bean's protein composition makes a significant difference to processors
when these products are made in bulk. Protein quality was one of the first traits
Ontario breeders began to work on for the Asian market. Higher protein varieties
are normally lower yielding than conventional crush soybeans.
Non GM content – In some of Canada's
largest target markets outside of North America, consumers are concerned that
food-grade soybeans remain GM-free. They seek the highest 'purity' possible,
and most contracts with overseas customers usually state 99 percent or higher
purity levels. Producers must continue to carefully produce, harvest, segregate
and ship their product to provide this assurance.
Traceability – From seed to soyfood,
proper documentation preserves the identity of soybeans. Expensive claims and
store recalls, not to mention the damage to the manufacturer's reputation, is
all on the line. The Canadian Soybean Export Association recognizes the importance
of this factor for its future success, and therefore has worked with the Canadian
Grain Commission to develop its internationally accepted national IP standard,
named the Canadian Identity Preserved Recognition System (CIPRS). It is the
first of its kind and is in place so all customers who buy from CIPRS certified
suppliers can be assured that their IP soybeans come with an approved, auditable
Large seed size – Japan's end users
view large seeded soybeans as a closer substitute to their own. Some companies
believe higher concentrations of seed coats from smaller seeds can result in
a more bitter tasting tofu or soymilk.
White in colour – Sticklers for presentation,
Japanese customers often demand a white soybean because many believe it helps
in making the bright, firm tofu that customers prefer. Growers can also help
by working diligently to avoid weed staining and dirt tagging during harvest
so the stains do not mix in with the milk during processing.
Round shape – Asian markets prefer
round soybeans because that shape most closely resembles Asian beans. The main
functional quality attached to a round seed is on the miso side, as the first
step to miso production often involves de-hulling, a process that is believed
to be easier using round soybeans.
Hilum colour – Originally processors
demanded white hilum beans because it was felt that coloured hila negatively
affected tofu colour. More recently, coloured hila have gained more acceptance
in premium tofu production systems, although the dark hilum soybeans must not
be genetically enhanced.
Flavour – Flavour is increasingly
becoming the newest focus for development of new soybean varieties. It is also
one of the most challenging traits for Ontario breeders to develop because North
Americans are generally not experienced with tofu flavour and texture. Because
many soyfoods are made with so few ingredients, a soybean composition can easily
affect the taste of the final product. Surprisingly, even for the Japanese the
target for taste is a moving one. For soymilk, for instance, one of the last
things a Japanese consumer wants to taste is soybeans. Therefore, Canadian breeders
are looking to develop low lipoxygenase soybeans which have a reduced 'beany'
flavour. Some Japanese food companies are even looking to the North American
market, which has 'Americanized' its soyfoods products to suit consumer demand.