This article by Gil Gullickson first appeared Jan. 22, 2019, at Successful Farming.
This fall, soybeans grown by 78 farmers in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa churned out of combine augers into awaiting trucks destined for a new type of market.
They’re high-oleic soybeans developed by Calyxt, a Roseville, Minnesota, company. These soybeans differ from conventional soybeans in that they have a fatty acid profile that contains 80% heart-healthy oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats – such as oleic acid – have been linked to reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the bad kind) and triglycerides while raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the good kind). These soybeans also have 20% less saturated fatty acids (they’re bad) compared with commodity soybean oil and zero trans fats. Trans fats are unhealthy fats that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned earlier this year.
These beans have other attributes that buyers like, too. “High-oleic soybean oil used for frying can last three times longer than conventional soybean oil,” says Manoj Sahoo, Calyxt chief commercial officer.
Several other high-oleic soybean offerings exist. Bayer Crop Science has its Vistive Gold brand, while Plenish is the name of Corteva’s high-oleic product.
Still, there’s one factor that separates Calyxt soybeans from others. They’re gene-edited using a tool called TALEN. It’s akin to a customized DNA scissors that binds and cleaves preselected DNA sequences to create a desired trait like the one in Calyxt’s high-oleic soybeans. Developed before other gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9, TALEN is proprietary to Calyxt.
“TALEN is a very precise technology – a precise laser compared with the shotgun approach of other gene-editing tools,” says Sahoo.
Farmers quickly accepted genetically modified crops like herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn, and corn that resisted several insects. Consumers? Given the resistance of many to genetically modified foods, not so much. Calyxt officials hope this changes with gene-edited products like high-oleic soybeans.
One reason Calyxt officials are optimistic is because they say the firm’s gene-edited soybean has consumer-friendly benefits. Processors have historically used a process to hydrogenate soybean oil that lengthens shelf life and cooking stability. Hydrogenation creates unhealthy trans fats.
A 2003 FDA requirement for trans fat content to be listed on the nutritional food labeling evolved into a ban on partially hydrogenated oil – a primary dietary source of artificial trans fats in processed food – that was implemented this year. This coincides with the World Health Organization calling for global elimination of trans fats in foods by 2023. Other countries, such as Canada, have also called for trans fat bans.
As a result, soybeans have lost 4 billion pounds in market share to other vegetable oils dating back to 2006, according to the United Soybean Board (USB).
High-oleic soybean oil, though, is the darling of dietitians. Rich in monounsaturated acids, it’s linked to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and higher HDL cholesterol. Diets rich in monounsaturated acids also help key lower fat mass and decreased blood pressure. Olive, canola, sunflower, and safflower oils contain high-oleic acid levels.
Now it’s soybean’s turn. USB has set a target of 18 million acres of high-oleic soybeans grown by 2023. That’s out of the 80 million or so acres that U.S. soybean farmers annually plant. It’s anticipated this will capture 9 billion additional pounds of oil from new and existing markets with soybeans in between relative maturity groups 1-5.
In 2016, USDA responded that gene-edited products will not be regulated like genetically modified ones. Sahoo adds that Calyxt’s TALEN gene-editing tool also makes it easier to create non-GMO products compared with other technologies.
“Because of the way our products are re-created using targeted mutations, we can create a specific fatty acid due to the precision of our technology,” he says.
The technology also makes it easier to update improved product versions. “It takes 10 to 15 years to get a new genetically modified product approved,” says Sahoo. “Using our technology, we can create an improved version in two to three years. This makes it easier for food companies to keep pace with changing consumer preferences.”
Calyxt plans to use a business-to-business model in which around 98% of the oil will be sold to small- to medium-size food companies as a food ingredient.
“We are getting large demand from those companies,” Sahoo says. “They see a niche. The smaller companies are also willing to pay a premium for the oil.”
This transfers into farmers receiving a premium, as well. In 2018, premiums paid to farmers growing Calyxt soybeans ranged from 55¢ to 90¢ per bushel, depending on the acreage grown and other factors.
Since Calyxt soybeans are non-GMO, though, farmers must use conventional herbicides and farming practices to control weeds.
“Farmers must also keep them segregated, with no cross-contamination occurring with GMO soybeans,” adds Sahoo.
Otherwise, production practices mimic those of conventional soybeans, with harvest aimed at combining soybeans with 12% to 14% moisture. “They yield as well as any other non-GMO variety,” Sahoo says.
The premium also needs to cover delivery costs. Sahoo says Calyxt has designated several delivery points in South Dakota and northwestern Iowa, such as elevators and processors, where farmers don’t have to travel farther than 70 miles.
So far, farmers can grow just one high-oleic variety for Calyxt. It’s a relative maturity group 1.8 soybean variety that fits the geography where it was grown this year, says Sahoo.
Reliance on one variety means fields must be carefully selected to match the region’s agronomic characteristics, Sahoo says. Calyxt officials say they plan to expand varietal offerings north and south of the current growing region by 2020-2021 to offer farmers more choices.
The Calyxt product also offers traceability back to the county where it was grown. “Consumers want to know that these soybeans came from farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota using state-of-the-art technology and from farmers who are good stewards of the land,” points out Sahoo.
This plays into an increasingly popular consumer trend, says Brad Fabbri, chief science officer for TechAccel.
“I think, at least in the U.S. and Europe, consumers want to have more information about where their food came from and how it was produced,” says Fabbri. “This gives them more confidence about what they eat.”