Pennsylvania and the Delmarva region are not exactly olive country, but for the second year, Mid-Atlantic farmers can grow soybeans that produce oil that is similar to olive oil.
“It’s almost incorrect to call it soybean oil,” said Russ Sanders, who is in charge of the new soybean line at DuPont Pioneer.
Pioneer’s Plenish and Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans have been genetically modified to triple the amount of oleic oil available in the beans, making the oil healthier, more stable and potentially more useful.
Oleic oil, the primary oil in olive oil, makes up 75 percent of the high-oleic soybean’s oil profile, while it is just 25 percent of a traditional soybean, Sanders said.
Consequently, the oil has less saturated fat, which is unhealthy, and polyunsaturated fat, which is less stable than oleic oil, he said.
Fast-food restaurants do not have to change their oil as often, and they can offer a healthier product. “That’s probably the biggest market,” Sanders said.
The oil can also make packaged foods healthier and have a longer shelf life, he said.
High-oleic oil does not gum up or darken as much when frying, according to Stratas Foods, a food-service company that carries a line of high-oleic oils.
It may also prove useful as a biodegradable and renewable source of lubricants and hydraulic fluid, as it can withstand high temperatures, Sanders said.
Most of the high-oleic soybeans are being grown in Ohio and Indiana, though Pennsylvania and the Delmarva are important regions too, Sanders said.
This is the second year that Perdue is contracting for Plenish soybeans in the region.
The company will contract up to 40,000 acres in Pennsylvania and Delmarva this year, Julie DeYoung, a Perdue spokeswoman, said.
Perdue will accept the Plenish beans at five elevators in Maryland, three in Delaware and the Marietta elevator in Pennsylvania, she said.
The company will pay a 50-cent-per-bushel premium for harvest delivery and a 60-cent premium for those kept in on-farm storage until the first quarter of 2015, according to the Plenish website.
The new market for high-oleic soybeans will help Mid-Atlantic farmers diversify and become more profitable, DeYoung said.
Monsanto is running trials on Vistive Gold in the Midwest this year. If the company gets the required approvals for exports, the high-oleic beans could be commercially available next year, according to the company website.
Demand has been growing rapidly and is now in the 150,000 to 200,000-acre range, Sanders said.
That seems small compared with the 80 million acres of soybeans grown in the U.S., but Sanders said Pioneer has been holding back somewhat until Plenish is approved in Europe, the last place it still needs a thumbs-up.
The high-oleic soybeans can be managed essentially the same way as commodity beans. Plenish has all of the defensive traits against fungi, cysts and nematodes that farmers expect.
Also important: “It yields just as well,” Sanders said.
As an identity-preserved product, the high-oleic soybeans must be harvested separately from a farmer’s commodity soybeans, Sanders said.
Pioneer is working with major food-service and packaged-food companies to supply them with high-oleic oil. These customers could increase demand by hundreds of thousands of acres per customer, Sanders said.
“The scale gets pretty enormous very quickly, and we have to be ready, as a seed company and really as growers,” to meet that need, he said.
Sanders did not mention any specific companies, though P.F. Chang’s is one of the chains that has experimented with the new oil.
Eric Justice, a top chef from the Chinese-food chain, told QSR, a quick-service restaurant trade magazine, that the oil lasted 30 to 40 percent longer and was not absorbed into the food as much during a 2012 live restaurant trial.
Sanders also sees high-oleic soybeans as a way to improve demand for soy oil, which took a hit when the Food and Drug Administration required labeling of trans fats in 2006.
About half of the soybean oil supply was hydrogenated, a process that makes the oil more stable but also creates trans fats, he said.
“Food companies couldn’t get away fast enough” from soybean oil, costing farmers the equivalent of 10 million acres, Sanders said.
“This is also a way for us to regain a bunch of that lost market share,” he said.
Because high-oleic soybean oil does not need hydrogenation and has a healthier oil profile, “it’s really a must-do for the industry,” Sanders said.
The industry goal is to get high-oleic soybeans to account for half of all soybeans processed domestically — 20 million acres, Sanders said.
That would make high-oleic soybeans the fourth largest commodity crop in the country, after corn, traditional soy and wheat, he said.
Many companies may have already switched to other high-oleic oils from palm or canola, though, which could blunt the influence of high-oleic soy.
“These products work well and are easy to get, so I’m not sure why we would need to switch to these other products,” a representative of a major food company told The New York Times on background.
As a genetically modified crop, the high-oleic soybeans have their detractors, though activists have not targeted the high-oleic trait as fiercely as they have crops with built-in pesticide and insect resistance.
In its report approving Plenish, the USDA said the opponents had been consumers who raised concerns about GMOs generally, rather than with the high-oleic trait.
With traits like glyphosate resistance and Bt genes, “really the farmer has been the only one who has seen the benefit,” Sanders said.
Now, the consumer gets to see the benefit of biotechnology, he said.