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In a bean, a boon to biotech

A researcher sorts leaf samples from a soybean plant at a Monsanto facility.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A researcher sorts leaf samples from a soybean plant at a Monsanto facility.

A new federal push to purge artery-clogging trans fats from foods could be just what the doctor ordered — not only for public health but for the unpopular biotechnology industry, specifically, two developers of genetically modified crops.

The developers, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, have manipulated the genes of the soybean to radically alter the composition of its oil to make it longer-lasting, potentially healthier and free of trans fats.

"In essence we've rebuilt the profile," said Russ Sanders, director of food and industry markets at DuPont Pioneer. "It almost mirrors olive oil in terms of the composition of fatty acids."

It's too soon to tell if food companies and restaurants will embrace the oils, which are now available only in limited quantities. But the policy proposed last week by the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate trans fats could make the marketing job easier.

The new beans could help the image of the biotechnology industry because they are among the first genetically engineered crops with a trait that benefits consumers, as opposed to farmers. Despite industry promises to create better-tasting or more nutritional foods, virtually all the biotech crops introduced since 1996 have been aimed at helping farmers control weeds and insects. That has made it easier for various consumer interest groups to oppose the crops.

"We have been told if we have a product that is beneficial to consumers it will be much more acceptable," said John Becherer, chief executive of the United Soybean Board, which funds research using money collected from farmers.

(Read more: Ethanol changes could hurt farmers)

The board is putting $60 million into the development and marketing of the altered beans in an effort to stem losses that soybean oil has suffered to palm oil and canola oil as concerns about trans fats have mounted. Its market share could decline even further if the F.D.A. proposal takes effect.

Soybean oil turns rancid relatively quickly, limiting the shelf life of foods containing it and requiring restaurants to change their frying oil frequently. To make it last longer, and also to solidify it for use in baked goods, the oil can be treated with hydrogen gas. But that process, partial hydrogenation, also creates trans fats.

In 2003, the F.D.A. announced that food products containing artificial trans fats would have to be labeled starting in 2006. And some cities, starting with New York in 2005, have told restaurants to avoid trans fats.

The use of edible soybean oil fell to 12.3 billion pounds last year, from an estimated 15.5 billion pounds in 2005, of which half was partly hydrogenated, according to Richard Galloway, a consultant to the United Soybean Board.

Mr. Galloway estimated that about two billion pounds of partly hydrogenated soy oil were still in use, mainly in baked goods, where a more solid consistency is needed and the amounts used can be small enough to avoid the labeling requirement.

More from the New York Times:
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But the F.D.A.'s proposal would require food companies to prove that partly hydrogenated oils were safe. That should pretty much eliminate their use.

Both Monsanto's Vistive Gold soybeans and DuPont Pioneer's Plenish soybeans are engineered to silence the gene for an enzyme that converts oleic fatty acid into linoleic acid.

The resulting oil has very low levels of linoleic and linolenic acids, which are polyunsaturated and responsible for soybean oil's short shelf life. By contrast, about 75 percent is oleic acid, three times the level in a conventional soybean. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid that is the main component of olive oil.

Monsanto's beans have a second genetic modification that lowers the level of saturated fats, which are also bad for health.

There are no plans yet to sell the new oils in supermarkets, since conventional vegetable oil is fine for consumer use and would be cheaper.

"You don't sit there and fry with oil day in and day out," said Robb Meeuwsen, director of edible oils at Zeeland Farm Services, which is marketing Vistive Gold oil.

A question now is whether the oils are coming to market too late, since many restaurants and packaged food companies have already eliminated trans fats.

Because the new oils are liquids, they could not easily replace the partly hydrogenated oils used in baked goods, unless they are blended with other fats. So the best hope for Monsanto and DuPont might be to try to win back share that has been lost to palm, canola or other oils.

They and their distributors argue that the soy oil flavor is more familiar to Americans and lower in saturated fats than palm oil. Soybeans are grown on far more land than canola, providing more security of supply and potentially larger economies of scale.

People involved in the new soybean oil say that many food companies and restaurant chains, including the giants, are now testing the new oils.

"We're sold out in 2013 and 2014," said John Jansen, vice president for regulatory, quality and innovation at Bunge, an oil manufacturer working with DuPont and Monsanto.

But there are grounds for skepticism. It has been more than three years since the Agriculture Department approved DuPont's Plenish soybeans for commercial planting and nearly two years since it approved Vistive Gold soybeans. Yet the crops are grown on only limited acreage, though that is partly by design until Europe grants permission to import the beans. And neither the seed companies nor the oil processors, citing confidentiality agreements, would name a single customer who is either using or testing the oils.

A representative for one of the country's largest food companies said that the company had already removed trans fats from some 90 percent of its products in part by using high-oleic canola oil. "These products work well and are easy to get, so I'm not sure why we would need to switch to these other products," this person said, insisting on anonymity for competitive reasons.

Moreover, Monsanto's and DuPont's previous attempts to market soybeans that would produce no trans fats, some of them developed with conventional breeding, faltered.

"I don't think high-oleic soybean is a slam dunk," said Walter Fehr, a soybean breeder at Iowa State University.

Monsanto and Dow could also face competition from a high-oleic soybean developed through conventional breeding, not genetic engineering, by researchers at the University of Missouri and the Agriculture Department.

Critics of biotech crops question whether the new biotech crops will benefit consumers, since most food companies have already eliminated trans fats.

Bill Freese, a researcher at the Center for Food Safety, said the crops should have undergone more extensive safety testing because the genetic engineering changed the levels of many components, not just the targeted fatty acids. Both Plenish and Vistive Gold soybeans underwent a voluntary safety review by the F.D.A.

By contrast, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has campaigned against trans fats but is not against genetic engineering, said the biotech oils could be an "excellent substitute" for partly hydrogenated oils.

Monsanto, DuPont and oil processors say that the fact that the new beans are genetically engineered has not deterred potential customers. That could be because almost all soybeans and canola are already genetically engineered, to provide herbicide tolerance.

DuPont expects only 100,000 to 300,000 acres of Plenish soybeans to be planted next year, mainly in Indiana and Ohio, a tiny fraction of the nation's roughly 75 million acres of soybeans.

Mr. Becherer of the United Soybean Board said the goal was to have 18 million acres of high-oleic soybeans growing by 2023.

Monsanto is also working to introduce a different genetically engineered soybean, one with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, similar to those found in fish oil and generally considered good for heart health.

If the high-oleic soybeans do not catch on with food companies, all might not be lost. The same properties that make them last in the fryer could also make them desirable for industrial uses, perhaps as lubricants.

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