The Food and Drug Administration’s announcement last week that trans fats must be eliminated from foods due to their link to heart disease has cast a pall over U.S. soybean growers. Partially hydrogenated oils like those made from soybeans are certainly on the F.D.A.’s list of ingredients to be banned. The American Soybean Association — already concerned about the loss of 8 million acres of soybean fields as food processors and restaurants have switched to using other oils — now fears that an additional 4 million acres of soybeans could not be needed.
Monsanto and DuPont are coming to the rescue.
The two biotech companies have been developing a soybean whose genetic profile makes oil derived from it last longer and which is also said to be free of trans fats. Oil from these genetically modified soybeans “almost mirrors olive oil in terms of the composition of fatty acids,” as Russ Sanders, director of food and industry markets at DuPont Pioneer, tells the New York Times.
Oil made from soybeans has a relatively short shelf life. If restaurants use it, they must change their cooking oil frequently. Treating the oil with hydrogen makes it last longer and solidifies it so it can be used in baked goods but creates trans fats in the process. Monsanto’s Vistive Gold soybeans and DuPont Pioneer’s Plenish soybeans have been modified so that the gene for an enzyme that converts oleic fatty acid into linoleic acid is silenced. As a result,
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.
Oil made from GM soybeans can be said to resemble olive oil due to its containing enhanced amounts of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that is the main component of olive oil.
The United Soybean Board has invested $60 million into the development and marketing of such GM soybeans as it is thought that they will be more appealing to consumers. “We have been told if we have a product that is beneficial to consumers it will be much more acceptable,” John Becherer, chief executive of the United Soybean Board, comments. Monsanto and DuPont are wagering that new soybeans could even “help the image of the biotechnology industry” by showing that, yes, GM crops can have health benefits.
“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,” the New York Times points out.
Remember Golden Rice?
Even those GM crops that have been said to have benefits haven’t exactly been greeted with enthusiasm. Another such crop, golden rice (which had been genetically engineered to biosynthesis beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A) has had as many doubts as accolades cast over it. Scientists have been uncertain about how quickly vitamin A degrades in the rice. Environmentalists have also been concerned about the threat GM seed could pose to biodiversity and to strains of wheat and other crops developed by local farmers over centuries.
Both Monsanto’s and DuPont’s GM soybeans have undergone a voluntary safety review by the F.D.A. As Bill Freese, a researcher at the Center for Food Safety, notes, genetic engineering changes the levels of other components beside fatty acids. He calls for more extensive safety testing.
High-oleic soybean oil may just never catch on. Many food companies have already switched to high-oleic canola oil to remove trans fats and see no need for trying out a new GM soy oil. Soy growers have only planted a relatively small number of fields with the GM soy due to export concerns; the European Union does not allow GM soy imports. Monsanto and DuPont could be dedicating thousands to develop soy beans that no one particularly wants to use. But then, maybe that’s not such a bad thing, if it keeps them from genetically engineering other products the world doesn’t really need.
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