Low-lin Soybeans Face Yield Drag Debate

Last week I told you how low-linolenic soybeans are helping food companies retool their recipes to rid products of trans fats. That's because as of January 1, 2006, a new FDA labeling law went into effect that forced companies to explain levels of trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol in food products. And since food companies don't like to scare their customers, they're looking for ways to pretty up their ingredient labels.

Trans fats occur when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable (soy) oil - a process called hydrogenation. They do this to increase shelf life and flavor stability. Consumption of trans fat and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, levels, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

Fortunately the soybean industry saw this coming and has worked with researchers to create low-linolenic soybeans that reduce the need for partial hydrogenation of soybean oil. Thanks to the backing of food companies like Kellogg and hefty premiums to contract growers, at least 750,000 acres of low-lin soybeans will be planted this spring across the United States. Many more will go into the ground next year.

Saving U.S. soy?
A lot of people are looking at identity preserved beans like low-lin and seeing the savior of the American soybean grower. "Putting stuff in a pile and waiting for the government to send a check is not agriculture's future," says John Diehl, who runs DF Seeds, the largest non-GMO seed processor in Michigan, out of Dansville, Mich. "Brazil does not have the storage or transportation infrastructure to do this. We're going to have to go to low lin to save soy production in the U.S. long term."

But one of the knocks against low-lin - at least from a grower perspective - is yield drag. That issue is being debated by both growers and soybean policy leaders.

"The perception in the past, is that every time farmers were offered a premium there was a yield drag," says John Becherer, CEO of the United Soybean Board, the soybean industry's checkoff arm. "In this case that's not true. Once farmers start growing (low-linolenic) and realize there's no yield drag, this will all come along."

But John Forrell, a contract grower who farms in Charlotte, Mich,, disagrees. "I've had three years of experience growing low linolenic and it does not take stress very well," he says. "This year root health was a problem. It was dry in my area and my longer season beans died out."

Forrell says the low lin just has a little weaker plant strength, so it's important to give growers a premium to offset the profit risk. "The yield risk is too high," he says. "If they don't offer a premium of at least 10%, I really question whether it would be worth growing it."

John Forrell, Charlotte, Mich., has raised low-linolenic soybeans three years now. "I see IP (Identity Preserved) beans preserving the market, but I don't know if it's a savior," he says.

So far this year he's seen premiums of 60 cents per bushel. "If you really want people to grow them, a buck per bushel would do it," he says. "As long as the companies that process low lin keep the premiums up, I think you will see a lot of farmers go to them. Obviously when varieties get developed and the yield drag is not there, premiums won't be so high."
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