High-oleic soybeans: the sector’s new frontier
By Blair Andrews
After more than a decade of introducing traits aimed at soybean management issues such as weed control and insect resistance, seed companies have begun offering transgenic varieties with specific traits that would benefit processors and consumers. While the exact value of these traits still has to be demonstrated in the marketplace, many in the soybean industry believe the potential benefits could result from developing new markets in North America with Canada’s highly regarded Identity Preservation (IP) system.
One of the more recent soybean traits to be introduced produces high-oleic soybean oil. “The principal objective is to create oil that has greater utility, meaning it is more useful in key applications,” says Dave Harwood, technical services manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred Ltd. “What makes the high-oleic profile desirable in most applications is the enhanced stability the oil has.”
High levels of oleic acid increase the stability of the oil when used in frying and food processing applications while reducing or eliminating trans fats in the food products. Marketed under the name Plenish, Pioneer says the varieties will provide high-oleic soybean oil that contains about 80 percent oleic acid, the highest oleic content in soybeans under commercial development.
Harwood says the high-oleic varieties are performing well in the field, noting that yields are on par with Pioneer’s other leading soybean products. “Every indication that we have with high-oleic varieties is that they yield competitively, or at the same level as our elite conventional commodity soybean varieties.”
He adds that the high-oleic trait is also compatible with the trait packages that are geared more towards the agronomic side. “If growers are demanding cyst nematode resistance, tolerance to glyphosate, tolerance to disease and the whole battery of things that reduce the yield of soybeans, and if you don’t have them in the high-oleic product, you’re going to increase the cost of production, which is undesirable.”
On the regulatory side, the Plenish high oleic trait received
Canadian approval in May 2009. The US Food and Drug Administration has completed its review and the United States Department of Agriculture is in the process of reviewing the trait. Also, Pioneer has either submitted or is planning to submit the trait for approval in key soybean import markets around the world. Harwood adds that Pioneer is in discussions with “every end-user imaginable” that the high-oleic oil has a significant advantage over conventional soybean oil.
Biofuel options also in the picture
In addition to food uses, high-oleic soybean oil can be used as a renewable and environmentally friendly option to petroleum-based products such as lubricants and foam products. This industrial aspect has attracted keen interest from the Ontario Soybean Growers (OSG). Dale Petrie, OSG general manager, is of the opinion that soybean products grown with specific traits can play a major role in the emerging bio-economy. Noting that it is difficult to compete with the big commodity producers of the United States and South America, Petrie says he would like to see Canadian farmers supply soybeans to higher value, niche markets. The key, he says, is to tie the new market opportunities to IP value chains. “The big difference is that most IP markets that farmers are accustomed to are the food-grade types, which are non-genetically modified,” explains Petrie. “Farmers can grow these new varieties under a glyphosate-resistant system. There’s a certain percentage of farmers who like the weed control of glyphosate-tolerant crops, but they also want to add some value to the crop.”
And Petrie says value could be derived from segregating the high-oleic soybean oil. “You don’t want to dilute your high-oleic oil and hurt the process with oil from traditional soybeans. If a manufacturer is set up to use the new high-oleic oil, the process has to be continuous.”
Petrie’s comments about the need for product segmentation are echoed by an official with the Woodbridge Group, the Ontario company that has become well known for manufacturing “greener” automotive parts. Produced with BioFoam, products like seat cushions, arm rests, head restraints, headliners, acoustical product, and energy management products are made in part from a polyol, derived from plant materials rather than petroleum. Dr. Hamdy Khalil, global director of research and development, and product development at Woodbridge, says the company would be interested in high-oleic soybean oil. “The potential may be a cleaner product. It will make it easier because the oil is more consistent.”
While the various components of a high-oleic soybean oil value chain are beginning to emerge, an important aspect is still lacking. Petrie says a crushing facility is required to process high oleic as well as other types of soybeans. “I see it as a bio-refinery because that is what we’re talking about; taking raw, plant-based oil and turning it into many different products,” says Petrie.
The Ontario Soybean Growers, AGRIS Co-operative, Suncor Energy and the provincial government, through its Rural Economic Development (RED) Program, have funded a scoping study for a flexible crush facility. Petrie says a lot depends on the expansion of the Suncor ethanol plant in Sarnia. “You need the corn processing to help offset the cost of the facility to be able to afford to crush beans.” Petrie concedes that building such a facility appears to be a long-term proposition at this time because the economic downturn and lower oil prices have caused Suncor to postpone the expansion of its ethanol plant. However, he stresses that the project has not been cancelled.
Industrial usage for soybeans also of interest
In the shorter term, plans are moving forward to demonstrate the value of the industrial uses of soybeans. A farm-scale biodiesel production facility at the Ridgetown campus of the University of Guelph began operating in August. The demonstration plant is the first project of the Centre for Agricultural Renewable Energy and Sustainability (CARES), which is focused on bio-energy research and the bio-economy.
Matt McLean, executive director of the Southwestern Ontario Bio-products Innovation Network (SOBIN), says the facility will ultimately crush soybeans for biodiesel and also test the oil for other industrial uses. “This could be the fit for high-oleic soybeans,” says McLean. “Have the facility flexible enough to process these IP soybeans separately, and then test the advantages in biodiesel and feed it out to industry for other applications.”
The research is another link in the chain because the value of the high-oleic soybeans and other specific uses will need to be demonstrated before there is any talk of premiums. “We don’t know for sure about premiums because we don’t know what the actual value is back to everyone else in the value chain,” says Petrie. He believes the value might fall between “straight commodity” soybeans and the IP food-grade beans.
From Khalil’s perspective, the price of the high-oleic should match the current price of regular soybean oil, adding that until the benefits are known, discussion on premiums is premature. “How is the material going to behave in lubricants, adhesives, coatings and biodiesel? These are all markets where the material should go and we just want to know how it will perform in these applications.”
While the future value of the new traits remains to be determined, the next stage of biotechnology continues to take shape with the introduction of characteristics that relate to end-use products. Does this represent a shift in thinking by the industry? Crop breeders like Dave Harwood and Dr. Gary Ablett at the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus, view the new traits as an evolution. “They have taken a little more development, but they are beyond the concept phase and present real opportunities to change the value of commodities like soybeans,” says Harwood. It is a stage of maturity that our industry is at,” says Harwood.
In offering his thoughts on where the industry might be evolving with these traits, Dr. Gary Ablett echoes Dale Petrie’s comments about increasing farmers’ participation in an IP-type of system. “It’s trying to differentiate the Ontario marketplace from the rest of the commodity-producing areas by introducing traits that require fairly tight IP systems where we would have control,” says Ablett. He also agrees with the assumption that a flexible crush facility is paramount. “To really capture the true value and position Ontario in a really favourable position for the production of IP for North American markets, we need a plant like that.”
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