Researchers are pursuing diverse avenues to build better beans for targeted feed and food uses. But sorting out which traits will pay to develop, grow and sell remains the big challenge.

Long a research stepchild to corn, most seed companies haven't been interested in spending a lot of resources on improving soybeans until they could sell added value and recoup research spending. Well that's all changing now, with herbicide resistance and other new desired traits for improved feed and food use.

Currently, soybeans are the second largest cash crop in the United States, valued at $16 billion per year. But that value may increase dramatically over the next decade as plant breeders and biotechnologists add modified oil and protein levels that are economically desired by livestock feeders and food processors.

Altering fat. Last year saw the introduction of genetically altered soybeans with high levels of oleic acid. DuPont Company introduced the new soybeans before Optimum Quality Grains L.L.C., the new joint venture between DuPont and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, was finalized last fall. Phil Kerr, director of business development for Protein Technologies International (a subsidiary of DuPont), St Louis, MO, says that these soybeans "represent the first step in a number of products like this."

"To improve soy oil's stability, you must modify the polyunsaturated fatty acid composition," Kerr says, who was soybean product development manager for Optimum Quality Grains before he joined Protein Technologies International. "This means increasing the oleic acid content and reducing the linolenic acid content of soybeans." Optimum Quality Grains' soybeans have an oleic acid content of 80 to 85% compared to commodity-type soybeans, which have an oleic acid content of about 25%. High oleic soybean oil, like its conventional counterpart, can be used in various products, including adult nutritional beverages, infant formulas and spray coatings for bakery products and cereals.

"The value of high oleic and other oils depends on the application, competitive products and the price of alternative ingredients," Kerr says. But, he adds that high oleic soybean oils for food products can garner premiums of $0.10 to $0.20/lb. over commodity soy oil.

New feeds change food. Livestock producers could possibly use high oleic soybeans in animal feeds to modify food products. DuPont and Land O'Lakes recently studied whether adding roasted high oleic soybeans to a dairy ration would affect milk composition and the dairy products produced from it. The study compared a typical corn-based diet (including silage and haylage) with 3% crude fat level, another ration with conventional soybeans added and a third ration with roasted high oleic soybeans added. Kerr says conventional soybeans and roasted high oleic soybeans significantly increase the fat content of rations because they have twice as much oil as corn.

Results showed that the high oleic soybean diet performed equal to or slightly better than the typical corn-based diet (which performed slightly better than the ration with conventional soybeans).

However, researchers were most interested in how high oleic soybeans might ultimately change dairy product quality. The milk produced from cows eating conventional soy and high oleic soy dairy rations had reduced levels of palmitic acid (an unhealthy component), with a significantly lower level in the latter ration.

Butter produced (from cows fed the high oleic soy ration) was similar in taste and shelf life, lower in saturated fat and softer than butter produced from cows fed the typical corn-based diet. "This was important because its monounsaturated fat content was higher. There was some concern that shelf life would be affected, but it wasn't," Kerr says.

More lysine. Optimum Quality Grains also is working on modifying or increasing the lysine content of soybeans for feed. New varieties could triple the lysine content of typical soybeans. The key is to keep the free lysine level available after soybeans have been processed. The company's researchers produced a defatted, toasted soybean meal with optimum protein solubility. Under optimum processing conditions, they could produce a soy meal with 50% higher lysine.

As with high oleic soybeans, the value of high-lysine beans will depend on the application and the price of competitive feed ingredients. Depending on the price, livestock producers may choose waste fat or synthetic lysine. "Competitive sources of essential amino acids and energy will set the parameters for value of high-lysine soybeans or other modified amino acids," says Kerr. "But, last year alone, synthetic lysine prices were very volatile, ranging from $0.80 to $2.00/lb." Conventional soybean meal sells for about $0.12/lb., so there's still an opportunity to sell high-lysine soybeans at a higher price, he suggests. Kerr predicts there will be future opportunities to increase the soybean's value using biotechnology to enhance flavor and digestibility. One way is to change the soybean's soluble carbohydrate profile. Kerr says researchers have already identified genes which can be used to change the composition of soluble sugars in soybeans. With the right combination of genes, biotechnologists will be able to shift carbohydrates into the more digestible and flavorful sucrose, he says.

Compete with meat. Kerr suggests that soy products with improved taste and digestibility will be better able to compete with milk, pork, poultry and beef proteins. And the market potential is huge. The world population annually consumes 15 million metric tons of milk protein and about 71/2 million metric tons of pork, poultry and beef.

When it comes to soy protein, however, the population consumes less than one million metric tons annually. The reason why people have not consumed more soy protein has been because of its poorer taste and digestibility. That could change with improvements in sugar composition.

Such improvements could translate into improved revenues for soybean producers. Concentrates and isolates made from high-sucrose beans, for example, could sell for four to five and even up to 10 times more than soy flour made from conventional beans, Kerr says.

Incentive to grow. Iowa State University economist Phillip Baumel agrees that modifications to soybeans can produce a "positive net benefit" to both producers and end users. But, he adds, it's yield that still nets the highest returns to the grower.

Baumel, and Marty McVey, an economist with AGRI Industries, Des Moines, IA, compared the expected net present value benefits of modified soybeans "either through modification to better fit the needs of end users" or through increased yields (and, consequently, lower production costs). They analyzed 18 modifications in soybeans.

The economists, using complex assumptions, concluded that producers and end users would receive the highest net returns if yields were increased by one bu./acre/year over a five-year period (or if they reduced production costs by $0.15/bu.). Net benefits, discounted back over the life of the research investment, would total $16 billion, Baumel says.

If they increased yields by 1/2 bu./acre/year (or reduced production costs by $0.077/bu.) over a five-year period, U.S. producers also would benefit.

"The next highest-ranking modification was raising lysine one percentage point," says Baumel. "That generated almost $6 billion over the life of the investment, with slightly more going to producers than end users."

Increasing soy protein by 4% was the next highest-ranking modification. "Our technology advisors told us we'd likely incur about a two percentage point decrease in oil," Baumel says. The economists accounted for that and calculated that the protein modification would still return a total of $2.8 billion, with about $1.5 billion being returned to the producers. Reducing the saturated fatty acid content of soybeans for the human food market, he says, would return about $1.4 billion to producers and end users. In this case, the net benefits to producers would total about $602 million.

Increasing the oleic acid content of soybeans to improve soy oil's stability would return a total of about $1.6 billion to producers and end users. Net benefits to producers would total approximately $507 million.

Baumel believes almost half of the total net benefits from soybean modifications would come from increasing yield (or decreasing production costs). Therefore, he suggests, about half of all seed company research budgets should focus on yield-increasing projects. However, he suggests that researchers should also invest in modifications to take advantage of new opportunities.