A KFC franchise in Nagano, Japan, may seem an unlikely place for U.S. farmers to launch a new-uses project. But, during the 1998 Winter Games, an Olympic Village eatery turned out to be an ideal spot.

"Media covering the Olympics were lodging not far from the KFC food stand, which happened to be about the only food stand in that area. So we had a captive audience," says American Soybean Association (ASA) Japan director Kent Nelson.

Specifically, the Olympic Village KFC served as center stage for the launch of ECO 2000, a project Nelson describes as an "environmentally driven, profitably sound local solution to global pollution."

The project is being coordinated by ASA, the U.S. Grains Council and the U.S. Foreign Ag Service. Their goal: to have at least one new corn or soy-based product in use at more than 2,000 restaurants in Japan by the year 2000.

"During the rollout, the KFC had to be closed for two hours to fit in all of the press and participants while we showcased the products," Nelson reports.

Participants included Japanese industry leaders, U.S. Ambassador Tom Foley, members of the International Olympic Committee and actor Kevin Costner. Costner has invested $20 million in a surface oil spill recovery system but needs ASA's land-based biodiesel system to clean shores.

"Biodiesel, which is now being manufactured at a new plant here, is one of our primary targets," says Nelson.

"Biodiesel is produced from waste cooking oil obtained from french fry vats and tempura shops. It's used to power buses and trucks, generate electricity and run heating and air conditioning units at the KFC store and other locations."

In addition to biodiesel, ECO 2000 leaders are promoting to restaurants the use of biodegradable corn plastics in utensils, cups, straws, bags and even clothes. Soybeans are featured in such uses as crayons and soy-based ink for printing place mats.

"ECO 2000 would not have been possible without seed money from the United Soybean Board four years ago and the vision of Solchiro Yoshida," Nelson explains. "With our help, Mr. Yoshida has taken biodiesel from concept to reality in Japan."

Yoshida heads a Japanese business conglomerate that owns KFC franchises as well as a chain of gas stations.

"Now that biodiesel is in the marketplace, we hope to see at least 200,000 metric tons of biodiesel (from the equivalent of 40 million bushels of soybeans) produced annually five years from now in Japan," says Nelson. "This is not a pie-in-the-sky goal. We feel it is very realistic and very attainable."

Rising demand for biodiesel and other new soy-based products will lead to growth in U.S. soybean sales to Japan.

"Many uses not only fit societal needs for more environmentally positive merits, they do so at or below the cost of currently utilized products," he says. "New uses will someday be a very significant portion of U.S. soybean exports to Japan - as much as 1 or 2 million metric tons in 10 to 20 years."