The US Soybean industry is a classic example of a “commodity crop.” The beans are grown to generate very widely used, standardized products – soybean meal, soy protein concentrate, and vegetable oil. Soybeans are a very common rotation partner with corn throughout the Midwest. Planted acreage has expanded dramatically since the early 1900s and is now in the 80 to 90 million acre range.
Soybeans have the additional advantage of a close association with a bacterium that can fix nitrogen from the air, and so they require little to no nitrogen fertilizer – an input that has become quite expensive because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The focus for soy breeding and management has been on higher per acre yields, and those have risen five-fold over the last century. Yields have increased even faster in the “biotech era” that started with the introduction of genetically engineered lines in 1996 and which has been further accelerated by “Marker Assisted Breeding” technology.
The herbicide tolerant soybeans enabled by that technology have also facilitated mass adoption of climate-friendly, no-till and strip-till farming methods. Soybeans are also a major contributor to renewable energy since their oil is widely used to make bio-diesel. In fact the renewable fuel use is now the primary driver for the US soybean industry and the protein plays a secondary role in terms of overall value.
But even though commodity soybeans are a very successful and important crop, there are opportunities to enhance its contribution to the agricultural economy through diversification. There is a company named Benson Hill that has developed specialty soybean varieties that are designed to fit specific end-uses and thus command a higher per-bushel price. They have chosen to do this without using transgenic genetic engineering methods making their soybeans “non-GMO.” This is not because they share the unfounded fears about that technology, but it is a realistic strategy that facilitates acceptance in certain brand-sensitive markets and for exports to places like the EU with its various “precautionary” barriers to technology. Benson Hill is vertically integrated in that they contract with individual farmers to grow their specific soybean varieties, and then they take those to the company’s own soybean crushing plants in Indiana and Iowa where they generate the oil and protein-rich meal sub-products such as white flake, grits, high-protein soy flour and more.
In terms of non-commodity soybean breeding targets, Benson Hill has developed lines with high oleic/low linoleic acid oil content which is a healthier option for the human food supply. They have also developed lines with very high protein content (up to 20% more than the standard commodity bean). Normal soybeans must go through a fairly energy and water intensive process to make the “soybean protein concentrate” (SPC) that is then used in many feed and food products. The high protein Benson Hill lines don’t require that step, and thus the customers that use their concentrate can cite a significant reduction in the “Scope 3 Emissions” (carbon and water footprints) of their final products.
Aquaculture is a very logical market fit for these high protein soybeans because as that important and growing sector of the global human food supply needs a protein source alternative to the limiting and otherwise problematic supply of ocean-caught “fish meal”. This month Benson Hill announced a partnership with the Danish aquaculture company BioMar which is a major player in the global salmon and trout industries. Benson Hill has already been making aquaculture feed, particularly for the US trout farming industry, and there is a very large and growing market for such feeds as an alternative to ocean-caught fish meal. Benson Hill has already been selling into the US trout market, but the BioMar partnership could represent a major new market opportunity for US soybean farmers. This relationship has enabled the two companies to do joint research to further optimize the digestibility of varieties for the specific fish species that BioMar raises – for instance by reducing certain oligosaccharides. It makes sense that it would take some adjustment to turn a land-based plant into a dietary substitute for an algae-based food chain that feeds the top-end predatory fish like salmon that people love to eat. One key nutrient that fishmeal supplies for species like salmon is the healthy omega-3 oils that are beneficial for human consumers, but BioMar has already been replacing those with options based on algae.
These specialty soybeans are an excellent fit for BioMar’s business and for their sustainability focus in general. They can avoid using fishmeal, their sustainability goals are advanced by skipping energy and water consumption of the concentration step, and they can realize optimal digestibility. An EU based entity called Blanc certifies these feed products as “deforestation-free” and as “non-GMO” (which is a must-have for the European market). The upside for US soybean growers is the option to grow a familiar crop but with a contract for a known price rather than simply having to take the variable price in the commodity market. This all fits well with a goal for rural America articulated by US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack during his plenary presentation at the recent USDA Outlook Forum. Vilsack described US agriculture and rural economies as being at a pivotal moment in which the paradigm needs to shift from the trend towards farm consolidation to a system that offers more opportunities for small, midsize, and new farmers. Expanded specialty processing was a prominent category in his list of solutions. Benson Hills innovations and BioMar’s applications are perfect examples of how that can work.