Improving the composition of the soybean is one way to compete in today's over-supplied market. The trick is how to move those improved soybeans through the marketplace and gain value from the effort.

These challenges are at the core of a United Soybean Board/checkoff-funded program, the Better Bean Initiative. The goal of the initiative is changing the composition of soybean oil in several ways, including, reducing the amount of saturated fat to improve soybean's nutritional value, reducing the amount of linolenic acid, which will better stabilize the flavor of foods and increasing the oleic acid content, which will reduce the need to add hydrogen to soybean oil.

Increasing protein

In addition, BBI is increasing soybean protein content in soybean meal, improving digestibility and developing soybean traits that address environmental issues such as excess phosphorus in livestock waste.

One problem is how these improved beans will move from the field to the marketplace and to the consumer, according to Jay Franklin, an Oklahoma soybean farmer. “We have to be able to identify the beans when they come to the elevator. That's a very important part of the process. But this is all about improving the commodity soybean,” he told attendees of the Southern Soybean Conference in Tunica, Miss., recently.

And, of course, these characteristics have to be in varieties with the agronomic characteristics growers are looking for, he noted. “It really doesn't matter if we have a bean that avoids trans-fatty acid labeling, produces less phosphorus waste in a poultry operation or is better-quality feed unless it is a higher-yielding variety.”

One of the goals of the BBI is to distribute any improved traits back to private and public breeders “to be incorporated into their elite germplasm, the high-yielders with the good agronomic traits. That's the challenge.”

Big question

“In my perspective if the U.S. farmer stays ahead of the curve on traits, then the leakage of the technology is good because the world crop continues to improve against the other protein/oil sources in the world. As long as we're on the leading edge of the curve, I think it's almost positive the technology is about to go to overseas.”

Will growers receive more money for a better bean? Not directly, according to Franklin. “It's difficult to do because it's an issue that's almost defensive in nature. I really doubt that we will see a nickel or dime increase in the price of beans. What we do think will happen is we save or improve marketshare. That's the whole issue.”

Improved soybeans are likely to end up in the hands of competitors, too, but Franklin doesn't see that as a negative, as long as the BBI remains an ongoing process. “In my perspective if the U.S. farmer stays ahead of the curve on traits, then the leakage of the technology is good because the world crop continues to improve against the other protein/oil sources in the world. As long as we're on the leading edge of the curve, I think it's almost positive the technology is about to go to overseas.”

A group of 27 scientists are currently working on the BBI process, according to Rich Wilson, USDA-ARS, also a speaker at the conference. Their challenge is to lay the groundwork for establishing relationships with food and feed companies to help build markets for the better beans.

“One of the best ways I see to get this done is through a scientific organization, the American Oil Chemists Society, to which all of the oil processing food and feed companies belong. The AOCS is trying to unify all other such organizations in the world. We're also working with Germany, France and Great Britain on a European Federation,” said Wilson, who is president of AOCS.

Wilson agrees that capturing value from the process could take some time. “Since 1996, there has been a precipitous decline in U.S. share of soybean exports. Current FAS data shows that the farm price for soybeans are at a 20-year low, largely because of under-performing export markets. We need to turn this around and that's where the BBI comes in.”

Currently, U.S. soybean farmers dominate the share of the market for vegetable oil. But competitors want to whittle away at that, and the food industry is looking for five billion to six billion pounds of oil a year with improved stability and flavor. Both canola and sunflower oil are cutting into soybean marketshare.

“One factor holding back soy oil consumption is consumer preference for diets that are lower in saturated fat,” Wilson said. “The industry has turned to crops like canola and as a result the consumption of these oils has grown at a faster rate than soybean oil even though these oils sell at a premium. The rise in soy oil consumption could have been much higher if soybean oil had lower saturated fat.”

Another development

So-called low-sat variety lines are already under development in the United States, according to Wilson, including some ready for release in 2001.

All USB/BBI projects deal with improving the soybean through both transgenic or with natural traits.

E-mail: elton-robinson@intertec.com.