Are soybeans going ‘moneyball’?

Soybeans are one of the world’s top commodities. But in the race to feed a growing global population, seed developers and ag tech companies are pointing toward a world in which at least some customized, value-added soybeans will no longer be simply a commodity, but will be developed into a range of highly specific, custom-engineered identity-preserved products.

Pioneer Seed is in the midst of marketing 89 new commercial seed products, including corn and soy, carefully winnowed out of 10,000 contenders. They include 44 new soy varieties, which the company says are among the highest yielding ever recorded.

Brent Wilson, Pioneer’s product line and agronomy lead, said, “Testing is key.” In a recent conference call, he compared the rigorous testing to the National Football League’s scouting combine, which he called a “moneyball” process of assessing and winnowing seed varieties.

That’s a phrase borrowed from big-league baseball to describe the data-driven, analytic approach to all farm inputs and outputs, otherwise known as precision agriculture. The phrase “moneyball” was coined in a best-selling book of that title (later a movie starring Brad Pitt) describing how Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane used data-drive analytics to reinvent his team’s game.

Germplasm archive

Pioneer claims to have the largest germ plasm library archive of any seed company. That diversity goes back to the company’s 1926 founding. Wilson said the company has 45 million individual data points to deploy in computer simulations—the virtual testing that precedes the real-world testing, and that both makes development possible and speeds it up.

“Data will continue to be at the center of what we do,” Wilson said. Corteva AgriScience, Pioneer’s parent company, invests more than $1 billion a year on research and development, he said. (Previously the agriculture division of DowDuPont, Corteva AgriScience became an independent public company on June 1.)

Then comes the field tests. Fewer than 20% of possible products survive the rigorous field tests, said Wilson.

In the U.S., 94% of soybean acres contain genetically plants, modified mostly for pesticide tolerance.

When asked what big idea gets him excited in 2020, President Judd O’Connor said it is Pioneer’s expansion of its line of Enlist E3 of soybeans, “ramping up that tech for U.S. farmers.” In August, Pioneer announced expanded availability of its branded Enlist E3 soybeans for 2020, including 24 new varieties that provide increased tolerance to glyphosate, glufosinate and the new 2,4-D choline.

New company, new approach

A new company is taking a different approach to developing targeted genetic diversity.

On Dec. 4, Benson Hill Seeds announced its launch as a stand-alone company that will focus on creating customized varieties of soybeans. Its parent company, Benson Hill, is a crop improvement company headquartered in St. Louis,Missouri. Benson Hill Seeds has its commercial headquarters in Grinnell, Iowa, but is looking for office space in Des Moines.

“Benson Hill’s crop design platform uses the most advanced traditional breeding and gene-editing techniques to improve crop performance, nutrition profiles, and taste and texture characteristics,” said Matt Crisp, CEO and cofounder of Benson Hill, in a news release. “As consumers demand greater focus on health and sustainability in food production, Benson Hill Seeds will deliver an expanded portfolio of soybean varieties with unique attributes that position growers to leverage those booming markets.”

In a media conference call, Jeff Johnson, president of Benson Hill Seeds and a former “Iowa farm kid” who has formerly worked with Syngenta and Pioneer, said the company would be focusing on its eMerge portfolio. Benson Hill Seeds describes the eMerge Genetics portfolio is an internationally known portfolio of non-GMO soybean varieties qualified to meet non-GMO Verified certification and sale in all markets, including the European Union. The traits of these seed varieties include superior protein and oil composition, improved feed digestibility, low trypsin inhibitor and other qualities sought by niche and high-volume users. The company says these traits can be selected for while maintaining yields.

While the company is currently focused on non-GMO varieties, Johnson said Benson Hill is “agnostic” in its approach to technology, including GMOs, and will supply the best techniques to supply what the market (including consumers) demands.

Input versus output traits

Johnson said the seed industry has traditionally focused on the needs of growers—developing traits for yield, resiliency and insect or insecticide resistance, for example. These are still the most sought-after traits for all soybean varieties. Johnson called traits like this “input traits” or “defensive” traits—i.e., traits designed to defend the crop and preserve or produce more of it against threats.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“Output traits,” on the other hand, include desired end-user characteristics such as protein levels, protein quality, or different levels of particular amino acids in soybeans destined for chicken or pig feed, for example. At one time, getting higher protein levels meant trading off against lower yields, but that is no longer the case, said Johnson.

He added that the emerging high oleic oil market is an example of how focus on value-added attributes on soybean varieties will meet new market demands and drive new variety development. Future Benson Hill Seeds offerings will apply a technology it calls CropOS to deliver both input and output traits in a wider array of crops with options that provide tastier, healthier and more sustainable results as well as the performance farmers need. This holistic focus, said Johnson, is what makes Benson Hill Seeds unique.

In the U.S., 70% of soybeans go to animal feed, while only 6% are directly consumed by humans. But soybeans equal 70% of the protein we eat, much of that in the form of animals that are fed soybeans.

The growth in popularity of plant-based protein may change that. According to an October article in Nutraceuticals World, the market for protein ingredients is projected to grow from $49.8 billion in 2018 to $70.7 billion by 2025. Sensory traits of soy products designed for human consumption, like texture and flavor, may become ever more important. It could become possible through gene-editing to identify “flavor pathways” and to use gene-editing to “turn off” negative textures or flavors.

“We have to change the quality of food, not just its quantity,” Johnson said.

Henry Ford’s vindication

Automaker Henry Ford was an enthusiastic promoter of industrial uses of soybeans in the 1930s and 1940s, making auto paint and many parts of Ford vehicles—even a complete auto body—out of soymeal ground and molded into plastic. Viewers of the Frank Capra holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life may recall a scene in which it is narrated that George Bailey’s close friend Sam Wainwright makes a fortune making plastic hoods for aircraft out of soybeans—a nod to Ford’s ideas at the time.

In fact, the war halted many of Ford’s visionary ideas for soybeans. But the current era might really be the one that really vindicates his vision.

The industrial uses of soybeans today are too many to list. According to John Jansen, vice president of oil strategy at the United Soybean Board, more than 1,000 industrial products, from car seats to Rustoleum products, have soy ingredients.

High oleic oil and its market

One relatively new soybean product, high oleic soybean oil, promises to be able to ramp up into a significant industrial market.

Developed by researchers at the Iowa State University—with funding provided by the Soybean Checkoff of the United Soybean Board significantly accelerating its development—high oleic soybean oil is currently being tested as an ingredient in asphalt by the departments of transportation of seven states, according to Jansen.

Conventional soybean oil has already been used as an asphalt ingredient, as a lubricant; but high oleic oil functions as a binder that could significantly increase the durability and life of highway asphalt. For two years, the state of Indiana has been running a test bed of the new asphalt with high-oleic oil, running semi trucks over it continuously night and day, said Jansen.

The results so far have been encouraging, with less than 2 millimeters of compression. Jansen sees a market for a billion pounds of high oleic soybean oil replacing petroleum products in asphalt within a few years. Within ten years, he said, that could amount to two billion pounds a year of conventional and high-oleic oil combined.

The oil can also be used as a concrete sealer to extend the life of concrete. It is becoming an important tire ingredient; three varieties of Goodyear tires include high-oleic soy oil that helps provide better traction. Goodyear has committed to having high-oleic soybean oil replace petroleum-derived ingredients in all of its tires globally by 2040.

High oleic soybean oil is also being used in a biosynthetic motor oil that has been approved for non-tactical U.S. military and government use, as well as for individual use. There is also room for soy-based ingredients to replace current petroleum-based ones that are sprayed on cardboard boxes and other packaging materials to provide a moisture barrier, said Jansen.

That attraction for many end-users is that the high oleic oil replaces petroleum-derived products, and thus contributes to a greener, cleaner footprint. But it’s not a simple case of displacement; Jansen said that as older oil refineries close and newer ones shift their focus, they are simply not providing some of the end ingredients they used to, leaving a space for high oleic oil and ingredients made with it to fill.

Researchers are also working on using the oil in surfactant detergents, although Jansen said commercial use is several years away.

As far as cooking goes, high oleic oil is preferable for commercial restaurant fryers, since it is extremely stable at high temperatures. And with no trans fat, it offers a healthy profile.

Growing high oleic beans can be attractive for farmers. Belinda Burrier, a farmer who also happens to be a director of the United Soybean board, began planting her Maryland farm with high-oleic soybeans in 2012, the first year they became commercially available. “We’ve always been innovators,” she told High Plains Journal. “We kind of lead the charge for the local farmers,” she said, eagerly attending the annual Commodity Classic. The results of the high oleic plantings were so encouraging that the Burriers have increased the acreage every year since. “The hardest part is getting the beans to the processor,” she said.

High oleic soybean oil is a byproduct of crushing the beans for meal, including the meal that Perdue crushes itself for its chickens to eat. According to Burrier, the industrial market for high-oleic oil is so promising that Perdue is investing significant amounts of money to develop the selling of it as a secondary business.

Processing bottleneck

Right now, said Jansen, the potential bottleneck in ramping up industrial quantities of high oleic oil for asphalt isn’t the ability of farmers to grow it, but the chemistry involved in processing it, which requires lots of epoxidation. But he is confident that issue will be solved.

Unlike some of the more targeted or niche uses of some soybean traits, high oleic oil is in position to scale up, using the industrial-scale facilities of the giant agricultural companies to become a true commodity itself. “High oleic oil could dwarf other vegetable oils, because it has scalability,” Jansen said.

He said about 250 million pounds of the high oleic oil is used today, but the potential is much bigger. Jansen speculates that industrial uses like this could provide between 10% and 15% of global demand for soybeans between 10 and 20 years from now.

If America continues to lead in soybean research, some part of the soybean market could move up the value-added chain, the same way that some industrial products and processes did. North American and European consumers can afford to buy some of the more niche uses of customized soybeans with particular traits.

We are not in that world yet. World demand for conventional soybeans will continue to grow as more of the overseas world population rises out of poverty and demands more high-quality protein in their diets.

As new uses are found for soybean products and new markets continue to be developed, soybean farmers will be taking their future into their own hands and decreasing their reliance on any one market.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].