Low-linolenic acid soybeans in demand

December 31, 2006|By New York Times News Service

DENISON, Iowa --With some restaurants and even the city of New York swearing off trans fat, Monsanto Co. recently sent representatives here with a mission: persuade farmers to grow a special kind of soybean that produces a valuable alternative to trans-fat-laden frying oil.

The company and its local soybean processor offered the farmers doughnuts and a simple pitch: an extra 35 cents a bushel to grow the special soybeans instead of regular ones, and seemingly unlimited demand. The special soybeans contain less of a fatty linolenic acid than other soybeans.

Some liked the offer, but others were not so sure, given the extra work involved and the allure of planting high-priced corn instead to feed the ethanol boom.

"I think that the reason that farmers are not catching on to these `low-lin' soybeans is the premium is not quite enough," said Fred Tilstra, a 69-year-old farmer in Steen, Minn.

As it now stands, there are not nearly enough of the special beans to fill the surging demand. That has created a tricky situation for major fast-food chains and manufacturers who want to stop using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a food industry workhorse that is the source of artificial trans fat.

The reluctance of farmers is just one part of the problem. Monsanto and its competitors have not been able to create new varieties of trans-fat-free soybeans fast enough to meet the demand for more varied uses. And the situation is only going to get worse: In the three weeks since New York City announced it would ban artery-clogging trans fat from its restaurants, several major cities and some states, including California, have begun considering similar measures.

"Everybody knows the situation; you just can't pull this stuff out of a sock," said Kelly Brintle, senior vice president of Ventura Foods, a California company that processes and sells edible oils and is also trying to persuade farmers to produce a lot more of the special soybeans. "Our phones are ringing off the wall."

Trans fat, which is in foods as diverse as cookies and french fries, is created when food manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil, a process called hydrogenation, to increase the shelf life of food and stabilize its flavors. For several decades, it was considered a healthier alternative to butter and tropical oils, which contain saturated fats.

But in the 1990s, scientists became convinced that trans fat was more dangerous than the fats it replaced. Not only does it raise levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad, cholesterol, it lowers the levels of good cholesterol.

A strange twist to the current supply squeeze for trans-fat-free soybean oil is that the seeds were created more than a decade ago, but for years, there were no buyers. One seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, finally stopped research on new varieties in 1999 because of the dismal prospects.

"We waited and waited," said Russ Sanders, marketing director at Pioneer, which is now part of DuPont. "Now the market is expanding faster than we can keep up."

As a result, seed companies and oil manufacturers are offering farmers anywhere from 21 cents to 80 cents a bushel extra to grow the low-linolenic soybeans.

Monsanto has made arrangements with 14 processing plants across the Midwestern Corn Belt to process the beans next year, and it has held several meetings with neighboring farmers at each plant to make its sales pitch.

"Our guys are working really hard to sign up as many growers as possible, but obviously there are challenges," said Christopher R. Horner, a Monsanto spokesman.

This year, farmers planted about three-quarters of a million acres of low-linolenic soybeans, anywhere from a third to half of what is needed to meet current demand, said Steven W. Poole, a spokesman for Qualisoy, an association that researches and promotes soybeans with enhanced traits.

Alternative oils

Ultimately, Poole anticipates that as many as five million acres of low-linolenic soybeans could be planted in the United States as more partially hydrogenated oils are replaced.

The soybeans are not the only alternative to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Some food companies have switched to palm oil, canola oil or sunflower oil, all products for which sales are growing rapidly to meet the surging demand. Given the difference between supply and demand, prices have risen for many of these oils as well.

But palm oil is high in saturated fats, so health advocates argue that using it substitutes one problem for another.

The other oils have their supporters - Frito-Lay uses corn oil and sunflower oil, for example, while Wendy's uses a soybean-corn blend and Taco Bell recently switched to trans-fat-free canola oil.

Many of the alternatives are more expensive than soybean oil, which accounts for two-thirds of the edible oils consumed in the United States.

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