Arguments over genetically modified foods usually center on pesticides. That makes sense–a significant portion of GMO crops in the U.S. are bred to be tolerant to increasingly strong pesticides. But then there are the GMO crops we don’t talk about as much: those that are bred not just for pesticide resistance, but to improve health.
For years, DuPont Pioneer has been working on a line of soybeans with a unique “oil profile.” DuPont’s Plenish high oleic soybean oil is trans-fat free and reportedly longer-lasting than other oils.
“In the early 2000s, when the company got serious abut this, there were rumblings back then that trans-fat issue was going to become much more important,” says Russ Sanders, director of food and industry markets at DuPont Pioneer. Then, all of a sudden, it was. In 2003, the FDA announced mandatory labeling of trans-fats on food nutrition labels. In the fall of 2013, the FDA went even further, with a plan to remove artificial trans-fats completely from the U.S. food supply.
But getting a biotech product like Plenish to market takes many years, and by the time DuPont began commercial production in 2010, many food companies had already taken it upon themselves to replace trans-fats with substitutes like canola oil and palm oil. DuPont has also been slow to roll out Plenish, largely because of safety concerns–Plenish soybeans aren’t yet approved in the EU, which naturally limits the amount of acreage devoted to the crops.
“We don’t want to see a vessel arrive in Rotterdam loaded with commodity soybeans that’s [accidentally] loaded with Plenish soybeans and they have to turn around. We don’t want to expose the U.S soybean industry to a lot of risk,” explains Sanders.
Like Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans, a similar line of products that’s free of trans-fats, Plenish soybeans have low levels of the acids responsible for giving soybean oil a short shelf life, and high levels of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that’s a main element of heart-healthy olive oil. Both Vistive Gold and Plenish also have lowered levels of saturated fat. Plenish has about two to three times the shelf life compared to commodity soybean oil.
“High-oleic canola oil has been coming into the market, taking a lot of market space we had,” admits Sanders. “One of the nice things about soybeans is that they’re produced in such a large area, if there is a drought or weather event in one part of the country, there’s usually a lot of acreage that will not be affected.” Plus, he notes, palm oil is often contentious because of plantations’ destructive impact on rainforests.
For now, Dupont is working with companies like ADM, Bunge, and Cargill, which are buying the soybeans from farmers, producing the oil, and selling it to big food customers.
“If this oil is in a package of chips, crackers, cookies, it’s a hidden ingredient. We’d like to have more visibility, and one area we do look at is whether it deserves a place on the retail bottled oil shelf,” says Sanders. “If you could find a way that this isn’t your Wednesday night oil but something that plays in higher market position, like a blend of olive oil and this oil, that’s the sort of thing we’re looking at.”
There are also opportunities to use Plenish soybean oil for industrial purposes. It could be used as a renewable, biodegradable hydraulic fluid, for example. Or perhaps foams and plastic created from the soybeans could be used inside vehicles. Sanders believes up to 20% of the total Plenish market could be in the industrial space.
For DuPont and Monsanto, high oleic soybean oil (and other products with heightened health profiles) is a way to get in the good graces of consumers who may be wary of GMO crops, especially in light of all the proposed GMO labeling laws popping up in states across the U.S. But first, they need to scale up production. Plenish soybeans take up just a few hundred thousand acres in the U.S., compared to nearly 80 million acres of soybeans produced overall.