ASA Examines Potential of New Specialty Biotech Crop Varieties for Soy Farmers

Jun 25, 2024

Work of Kunkler & Gerlt on promising opportunities is peer reviewed & published


Washington, D.C. June 25, 2024. A new article researched and co-authored by American Soybean Association staff explores how farmers can potentially benefit from new biotechnology innovations. The piece offers promising options for America’s half a million soy growers and was recently reviewed and published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Sciences. by ASA Director of Government Affairs Kyle Kunkler and Chief Economist Scott Gerlt, Ph.D., is part of a research topic symposium hosted by the journal. It considers how plant molecular farming can benefit U.S. soybean farmers and create new markets for consumers and the most successful ways to launch these varieties.

Molecular farming is when plants are genetically engineered for the purpose of creating new proteins that are not native to the plant; those proteins are then harvested at scale to meet a unique market purpose. Plant molecular farming is not a new technology and has long been considered by pharmaceutical manufacturers for producing vaccines and other biomedical compounds. In recent years, the technology has gained interest for food and feed applications. While there are other ways to produce these proteins, the article analyzes how growing them at scale in soybeans or another crop can be a more cost-effective option, especially for applications seeking to minimize production expenses.

Kunkler, head of ASA’s regulatory portfolio and an expert in biotechnology and crop production innovations, shared, “There is growing support for using plant molecular farming to enhance food or feed products. For our industry alone, potential uses range from creating more realistic soy-based alternative food products to enhancing the qualities of soybeans to develop better livestock feed. Given their high protein and oil content, soybeans are a natural fit for numerous plant molecular farming applications. That means there is enormous potential for U.S. soybean farmers to create new markets and income opportunities through this technology.”

An important point of the article is how U.S. farming operations could create new income opportunities by growing plant molecular farming specialty varieties relative to bulk commodity soybeans. After considering case studies, such as the roll-out of high oleic soybeans beginning in 2010, the article makes clear there may be significant premium possibilities for farmers who opt to grow these varieties in the years ahead.

Gerlt validated these opportunities, saying, “U.S. soybean farmers frequently run narrow profit margins. In markets like the one in which we currently find ourselves when commodity prices are down, many farms are at risk of very low profits and may need to look to alternative revenue sources to stay in the black. While potential premiums will vary significantly, plant molecular farming of specialty soybean varieties can create a meaningful source of extra on-farm income and help keep farm operations economically sustainable.”

The article also considers potential risks of plant molecular production that could require management. For example, if biotech varieties have not been approved by export partners and are inadvertently comingled with bulk commodity soybeans, it could lead to significant trade disruption.

Kunkler said of the potential risks identified, “There are certain risks, but we believe they can be carefully managed. Risks will vary depending on the application, but working with regulators and the farmer community in advance of launch to identify those challenges and how to best manage them will be vital for product success. A strong, closed-loop system may be necessary to prevent comingling for many products.”

Gerlt highlighted how closed-loop, identity preserved systems can be a winning proposition for farmers, product manufacturers and the public. “A manufacturer does not want to lose precious supplies of a specialty product any more than a farmer wants to lose that premium product they worked hard to grow. So long as closed-loop systems are robust and farmers are sufficiently compensated for helping to maintain those systems, these methods can be a win for everyone.”

ASA looks forward to working with the developer community and regulators to create a pathway for these innovations. With care and forethought, advancements in plant molecular farming can provide income opportunities for farmers and new markets for consumers, all while safeguarding the bulk commodity markets U.S. soybean farmers continue to serve.