In a few years, Missouri Bootheel soybean producers may come upon a variety description that reads something like this: High yielding; 4.7 maturity; medium plant height; very good lodging and shatter resistance; palmitic acid, 2.2; stearic acid, 3.0; linolenic acid, 2.7 and oleic acid, 54.6.

The above characteristics describe not only a soybean that could fit a grower's need for the right agronomic and yield traits, but one that could excite a lot of food processors here and around the world, too.

That's because those last four characteristics describe a bean whose oil component is low in saturated fats and linolenic acid and high in oleic acid, a good combination of traits in today's health-conscious society.

Growers could start seeing these ultra-healthy soybean varieties enter the market by mid-decade, thanks to an ambitious United Soybean Board/checkoff funded project called the Better Bean Initiative.

A healthier soybean oil could do a better job of competing with canola and sunflower oils, both of which have staked claims to healthiness because of their extremely low saturated fat content. The improved beans could also create more demand for U.S. soybeans, hopefully reduce burdensome ending stocks and, therefore, bump prices.

The BBI is a coordinated effort between researchers in all the soybean-growing regions of the United States. According to Grover Shannon, a plant breeder at the Delta Center in Portageville, each researcher is a spoke in a wheel, rolling toward the same goal — putting healthy traits in high-yielding varieties that are adapted to each growing region.

“It's a three phase program,” Shannon said. “We start with the low linolenic acid lines, then combine low linolenic with low saturate lines, then introduce the high oleic lines.”

All the while, breeders are crossing the new lines with local varieties to add the agronomic traits that growers need. Shannon describes the process as “a lot of projects going on at the same time, like a funnel converging at one point. It's not as simple as it appears. Many times there are multiple genes involved.”

Shannon has completed phase two, having locally adapted several low linolenic, low saturate lines. The latter lines were developed using mutation breeding and other techniques by Purdue University and North Carolina State University. Shannon will screen these lines for yield this year.

In row plots last year, one of the lines, S00-2791, “looked real good compared to other varieties in the same field,” Shannon said.

Shannon is just beginning phase three, crossing his best low saturate, low linolenic lines with high oleic lines developed recently by USDA at North Carolina State.

“We could start yield testing low saturate, low linolenic, high oleic lines in 2002 or 2003,” Shannon said. And growers could get their first look at the new lines in 2004. “But there are other programs that could be further along than we are, or further behind.”

A parallel BBI project to develop higher protein soybeans, with resistance to soybean cyst nematode is also under way, as well as a soybean with low phytic acid, which would be appealing for feeding operations, noted Shannon. “Chickens can't digest phytic acid, which is organic phosphorus. There is a gene that will allow us to lower the phytic acid and improve the digestibility of soybeans and the phosphorus won't end up in the streams and rivers.”

To put it all together — to build a perfect bean — with the protein, low phytic acid and the healthy oil attributes could take another 10 years, according to Shannon.

The BBI should also help head off another problem for soybeans, according to Shannon. Currently, the commodity soybean is high in linolenic acid and low in oleic acid, “which causes off flavors and reduces the stability of the soybean oil in cooking.”

To counteract this, soybean oil has to be hydrogenated, a process which creates trans-fatty acids. That's not good. In fact, the federal government is considering labeling for trans-fatty acids in foods.

But if the linolenic acid level of the soybean is lowered and oleic acid levels raised to 50 percent through the BBI, hydrogenation would not be necessary. “It just makes up more competitive,” Shannon said.

The task is arduous for Shannon and two other researchers working on the project, Sam Anand, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and David Sleper, professor of agronomy at the University of Missouri, Columbia. “There are a lot of genes involved and you have to do a lot of screening. We send 5,000 to 6,000 soybean samples off every year and we get a hundred back with the oil traits that we can work with. Out of that 100, we look for yield and adaptability to our soils and growing conditions.”

The BBI does not use any genetic engineering technology to isolate new traits, although the varieties will be made available to seed companies that could place it in new or existing transgenic varieties.

In fact, the healthy oil varieties will be available to any seed company that wants them, Shannon said. “Eventually, we may get to the point where a customer may come to us and want something with so much oleic acid and so much linolenic acid and we give him a prescription oil. It may come to that.”

Currently, both canola and sunflower are commanding a premium price. “Even though their price is higher, the use of canola and sunflower is going up relative to soybeans,” Shannon said. “We're beginning to lose out on some marketshare.”

Canola oil has 4.3 and 1.7 percent, respectively, of palmitic acid and stearic acid, both saturated fats, 59.1 percent oleic acid, an unsaturated fat, and 6.2 percent linolenic acid, the factor which determines cooking stability. Generally, saturated fats are not good for humans. Unsaturated fats are.

Commodity soybeans have 10.5 and 3.2 percent, respectively, of palmitic acid and stearic acid, 22.3 percent oleic acid and 8.3 percent linolenic acid.

S00-2791 has 3.8 and 3.0 percent, respectively, of palmitic acid and stearic acid, 22.3 percent oleic acid and 3.4 percent linolenic acid.

Palmitic acid is one of worst saturated fatty acids because it increases LDL, the bad cholesterol and reduces the HDL, the good cholesterol.

Shannon has been at the Delta Center about a year and a half, after spending 20 years as a breeder for Asgrow Seed Co. and Delta and Pine Land Co. He inherited the BBI program at Missouri from Anand, who started the work. Ironically, Shannon began his career at the Delta Center before he went to industry. At that time, 1979, he was replaced by Anand.


e-mail: elton_robinson@intertec.com