Soy research focuses on sustainability

Soybeans are one of the most versatile agricultural products ever. The many food uses of soy products are well known. Because soybeans are high-protein, and soy protein includes all nine essential amino acids, it’s an important part of vegetarian and vegan diets, as well as being one of the best animal feeds.

Soy is an ingredient in several of the new “alternative meat” products. It has long been important in the diets of many countries around the world in foods like tempeh, tofu, soy milk, soy cheese and many other foods that were once part of regional cuisines but are finding international acceptance and popularity.

The growing number of industrial products that use soybean ingredients include cosmetics, shampoos, soaps and other personal care items, as well as flooring products, cement, asphalt, paints and thinners, motor oils and many more. Soybeans or soybean oil make up part of more than 1,000 products, and the directors of the United Soybean Board are always looking at unique, innovative ways to use and promote soybeans. Their research efforts, funded by the Soy Checkoff, have helped develop dozens of innovative products.

Recently, trends in sustainability and climate-friendliness have narrowed and focused that research into those product areas, according to John Jansen, vice president of strategic partnerships at United Soybean Board.


Renewable diesel leads the pack

First in line driving the market for soy oil products is renewable diesel, made from high-oleic soybean oil. Renewable diesel is not the same as biodiesel. As Paul Hughes, executive director of research and analysis at IHS Markit, explained at a webinar earlier this summer, biodiesel produces fatty acid methyl esters, or FAME, which can only be blended with motor fuel to between 10% and 20%, whereas renewable diesel can be blended up to 100% with other diesel fuels without the gelling issues that affect FAME fuels. Thus, renewable diesel has a much lower “carbon intensity” than biodiesel.

That is important in states like California, which has fuel new standards that consider the total carbon footprint of fuel alternatives and substitutes. California has committed itself to reducing the “carbon intensity” of all fuels used in the state by 20% by 2030—only 8.5 years away. Canada, British Columbia and the state of Washington are all either considering or are about to pass similar fuel standards. While their populations aren’t close to California’s, Canada has a lot of “drive miles.”

Renewable diesel is chemically near-identical to petroleum-derived diesel, except that it results in 74% fewer harmful greenhouse gas emissions, according to Jansen. Unlike corn ethanol, which has a blend limit in gasoline, renewable diesel has the potential to completely replace petroleum diesel 100%.

This rising demand is a big part of what is driving the investment in new soy crush facilities in the United States. Cargill announced earlier this year that it was investing tens of millions of dollars to increase crush capacity at its existing facilities in Sidney, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Wichita, Kansas. In May, ADM announced plans to build North Dakota’s first dedicated soybean crushing plant and refinery in Spiritwood, N.D., for about $350 million. The fully automated plant will have a capacity of 150,000 bushels per day.

Platinum Crush LLC is building a $350 million crushing plant in Buena Vista County in Iowa, near Alta. When it comes online in March 2024, it will be able to crush 40 million bushels a year.

High-oleic production area growing

It takes between 18 and 24 months to build a new plant. Right now, said Jansen, high-oleic soybean production is concentrated in Indiana and the DelMarVa peninsula, but it is spreading rapidly. High-oleic beans are grown in 13 states, and the Midwest is up and coming. “Nebraska and Iowa are really getting involved,” Jansen said. He said 600,000 acres were dedicated to high-oleic beans this year, and he expects 1.1 million high-oleic acres to be planted in the coming crop year.

As fast as plantings grow, they will be hard pressed to keep up with domestic demand. Interest in the potential of soybean oil (and other vegetable oils) for renewable diesel is so great that it caused the price of soybean oil to decouple from that of soybeans shortly after the January inauguration of President Joe Biden, who has made climate change measures a top priority.

Forward contracts

Farmers that plant high-oleic beans almost always get guaranteed contracts, at prices with a premium of between $0.75 to $1.25 per bushel. “These contracts are heavily regional right now,” said Jansen, but he expects that to change.

While high-oleic beans don’t require different inputs from regular beans, they do require “soft” identity-preserved measures, Jansen said. That is, they have to be stored and shipped separately, but farmers don’t have to clean out conveyors or soy-handling equipment that has handled other varieties of beans.

High-oleic oils can be more expensive that conventional oils used in such industrial products as artificial grass, concrete sealer and tires. But Jansen sees a future where concerns about carbon intensity and sustainability outweigh cost alone. “Consumers have shown they are willing to pay a bit more for the sustainability advantage,” he said. “That goes for food, but also for industrial products.” Jansen sees the food uses of high-oleic oils as greater than the industrial uses until about 2027, when he thinks they will balance out at 50/50.

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Biodegradable plastics

The other area of research interest for soy products that is also driven by concerns about the planet is biodegradable plastics—soy-based plastics that degrade completely within 6 to 9 months. The past few years have seen a wave of publicity about plastic pollution in the oceans and waterways. Awareness of micro-plastic particles, known as nurdles, in the oceans and waterways has grown, as has concerns about their being ingested by sea life. Soybeans aren’t the only source of biodegradable plastics; petroleum-based competitors are in the market. But as companies and consumers get savvier about the total carbon footprint of various products, soy-based ones could have a clear advantage.

The technology to develop this solution is already there and proven, said Jansen. Biodegradable products are not new. “It’s the largest segment after renewable diesel” for soy products, he said. “You can commercialize production today, right now. It’s a proven technology. The environmental benefits are tremendous.”


Another market with large potential for soy ingredients is surfactants (surface-active agents). These are products that reduce the surface tension in certain liquids, increasing their wetting and spreading properties. Surfactants are used in detergents and many industrial chemicals. The surfactant market is about 18 billion pounds a year, said Jansen. “It’s a growing market, but to the petroleum companies that make competing products, it’s small potatoes.”

High-oleic soy oils are also used in paint thinners, paints, inks and many other chemicals, where they provide a cleaner, lower-carbon footprint.

All these converging developments that relate to climate-friendliness and sustainability mean the domestic market for high-oleic soybeans will continue to suck up every single bean U.S. farmers produce and demand more for years to come, said Jansen.

Seed trait development

Because seed trait development takes so long and costs so much, seed development companies have to keep a sharp eye not just at what the market is doing today, but years into the future. Along with yield-oriented traits like its Enlist line of soybeans, “High-oleic oil is a big focus” of research and development efforts at Corteva Agriscience, said Wendy Srnic, vice president of seeds, research and development. “High-oleic soybean oil is hot right now; we can’t seem to get enough of it.”

Srnic cites the California regulations as a market driver, but also notes demand for all kinds of commodities will continue to grow over the next few decades. “It’s a very bullish demand signal,” she said. “We have to look at it with the eyes of a grower in the future.”

Much of Corteva’s seed trait development takes place via traditional breeding techniques, but speeded up with “moneyball” data-driven practices that reduce development time. “It’s a faster and more targeted approach than in the past,” said Srnic.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].