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Genetics Bring High Value to High Oleic Soybeans

High oleic soybean oil is reaching new heights. New genetic discoveries are bringing better oil content, more stability, and as a result, an inexpensive cooking oil option that offers benefits similar to olive oil.

“Ultimately, this is for consumers,” says Kristin Bilyeu, USDA Agricultural Research Services (ARS) molecular biologist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Missouri. “But we think it’s an opportunity for farmers to add value in their products.”

Bilyeu and others involved in research found parent lines from a gene bank with more than 20,000 varieties of soybeans from around the world. Since soybeans aren’t native to the U.S., she had to look elsewhere--namely Asian countries. One parent of her favorite cultivar is from Taiwan, and Bilyeu has used others from several other locations in Asia.

Seed_Bank
Seeds from bank of more than 20,000 soybean varieties that will be tested in crosses to create more stable high oleic soybeans.

Using traditional breeding techniques, a non-GMO strategy, Bilyeu and others are finding they can drastically increase soybean oleic acid content in the oil. “Typical soybeans have 20% to 25% oleic,” she says. “My experiments average 83% oleic.”

“We are also testing the soybeans for the ‘what-ifs,’” she adds. “The soybeans are very stable across all environments.” This means food processors get more oil out of every bean, but one big issue remains: spoilage. 

Researchers think they've found the answer to that with low linolenic soybeans. Linolenic acid is responsible for the content of omega three fatty acids in soybeans. While omega three acids contain some health benefits, high linolenic acid causes soybean oil to spoil faster.

So, to create a soybean with more stable oils for end users, the researchers are combining high oleic soybean genetics with low linolenic soybean genetics.

“Processors also want low linolenic,” says Grover Shannon, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri Delta location. “It will mimic olive oil and has many more uses—frying foods, motor oil, lubricants, etc.”

Shannon tests the new genetic combinations in the field to see how they will handle real-life scenarios. He recognizes achieving high oleic, low linolenic is good, but also realizes that farmers will expect yields similar to today's soybeans.

Luckily, that doesn't look like it will be a problem.  “There is no negative affect of yield,” Shannon says. “The next step for breeders, now that we found the gene, is to put these genes in every maturity found in the U.S. ... There are about 80 million acres of soybeans in the U.S. We could potentially see as much as 30 million acres go to high oleic.”

This research is funded by the United Soybean Board and will stretch from a maturity group 00 to VIII so the technology can be used by all farmers.

Production is ramping up on the soybeans, with the first varieties expected to be available in 2017 or 2018, according to Shannon. He and other researchers are using a combination of U.S. and Puerto Rican production to speed up testing and seed production. They are also working with seed companies to establish distribution partners. The seed company partner will have the opportunity to back-cross the genetics into herbicide-resistant soybean technology if that fits its portfolio better.

For Bilyeu, seeing farmers benefit from this technology will be worth all the hard work she has put in. “Farmers have to see the reward. This gives them the potential to regain some of what’s been lost (soybean prices),” she says. “As long as someone grows what I’ve worked on, it will be satisfying.”

Would you consider planting high oleic soybeans? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.

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