Demand for specialty soybeans has been low Optimistic expectations for specialty soybeans have not become reality - despite the beans' component improvements.

At least that's the case for high-sucrose, low-saturated-fat, high-oleic and low-linolenic soybeans. That's ironic, considering the current emphasis on soyfoods in the U.S.

High-sucrose beans offer high protein, an improved flavor and are lower in undigestible carbohydrates that can cause abdominal discomfort often associated with soyfoods.

The other three of these identity-preserved, value-added varieties offer improved soy oil for human consumption. LoSatSoy oil, for example, has only about half the saturated fat of commodity soy oil.

Low-linolenic soybean oil contains half the linolenic acid of commodity soy oil, thus reducing the need for hydrogenation, a process that produces unhealthy trans-fatty acids.

High-oleic soybeans, promoted as "heart healthy," offer both stability and nutritional advantages for manufacturers and consumers. Oil produced from these beans has over 80% monounsaturated fat - the good fat - compared to 23% for commodity beans.

Contract production for all four of these specialty beans is offered through DuPont Specialty Grains (Formerly Optimum Quality Grains) at Des Moines, IA. Seed is available through Pioneer and Asgrow. Specialty Grains selects grain elevators in the Midwest to handle the beans for sale to processors.

Why aren't these value-enhanced soybeans grabbing consumers as many industry insiders predicted several years ago?

Ironically, even though only high-oleic beans are transgenic, antibiotech fallout has thrown a damper on the growth of these specialty varieties.

"It's not that this biotechnology is bad science," says Burt Swanson, a University of Illinois rural development specialist who has studied these specialty beans. "It's just that you are dealing with perceptual things, and when it comes to food and health, people are just getting nervous.

"In any case," Swanson adds, "the strong demand markets predicted earlier for these specialty beans just hasn't developed yet."

Darren Jarboe, program coordinator for the Iowa Quality Grain Initiative, echoes that evaluation. "Fear is a powerful tool, and even unrelated events in Europe have likely been a factor," he says.

Bob Kennedy of DuPont Specialty Grains is still optimistic about the future of these enhanced-value soybeans. But, he acknowledges, "they're not taking off quite as fast as we hoped."

In fact, the biotech concerns affected the company's high-oleic bean program directly, and contracting has been put on hold for 2001. "High-oleic soybeans are not yet approved in Europe, so DuPont has made the decision to focus resources on introducing new varieties with fewer regulatory hurdles," says Kennedy.

"The food companies were reluctant to utilize a biotech oil because of the concerns that have been raised," he adds. "We still want to pursue the high-oleic technology. It's the one we were most excited about because it offers several healthful traits for consumers. It could be a future star. So we remain optimistic."

The company's high-sucrose program is growing. It has a lot of applications in the soyfood health claim arena. It allows a higher level of soy to be used in food products because it greatly reduces digestibility or gas problems in humans.

"The high-sucrose bean is probably our most exciting product right now because of the new health claim for soybeans," says Kennedy.

The low-sat bean program hasn't taken off as hoped, mostly because the healthier oil costs more, due to the necessary grower premium and handling charges compared with commodity soy oil, Kennedy explains.

It's much the same with the low-linolenic acid soybean program, which is a small one that has a higher cost barrier, says Kennedy. He predicts demand will pick up when trans-fat has to be labeled as part of saturated fat. But, until then, food companies have been reluctant to pay the higher cost.

Most farmers need the enticement of a per-bushel premium before growing high-sucrose, low-saturated-fat, high-oleic or low-linolenic soybeans. That's because there's typically a yield drag.

Ellsworth Schechinger, Manilla, IA, grew 600 acres of specialty beans last year and plans to grow that many again this year.

"We like the fact that you get that bonus and you can get rid of them at harvest and don't have to fool with storing them," Schechinger says. "We deliver them right off the field at harvest.

"They don't yield as well, but the premium is now up to $1.25/bu," he adds. "Like anything else, it's a little extra work if you want to make a little more money."

Louis Waayenberg, Caledonia, MI, has raised low- sat-fat beans for four years, and they accounted for 800 of his 1,200 bean acres in 2000. In his area, about 30 miles from Lake Michigan, these beans do very well. In fact, they yield about the same as conventional beans in his test plots.

"Premiums have run 25-40/bu, but last year they were 25, and I feel it's really a marginal advantage at 25," Waayenberg says. "I feel they just haven't advertised these beans enough or developed the market well enough with consumers to capture enough demand to enable the contractors to pay more attractive premiums. If the financial incentive is there, farmers will grow whatever acreage is needed."