The soybean industry is seeking government approval of a genetically modified soybean it says will produce oil lower in saturated fat, offer consumers a healthier alternative to foods containing trans fats and increase demand for growers' crops.
Demand for soybean oil has dropped sharply since 2005, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring labels to list levels of trans fats, which have been linked to coronary heart disease. Vegetable oil does not naturally contain trans fats, but when hydrogen is added to make it suitable for use in the food industry, trans fats are created.
Agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. says oil from its new soybean will meet manufacturers' requirements for baking and shelf life without hydrogenation, resulting in food that's free of trans fats as well as lower in saturated fat.
The FDA approved the new bean, called Vistive Gold, earlier this year, and Monsanto and several state and national soybean groups are now seeking approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service said in an email to The Associated Press that it has no timeline for making a decision.
U.S. farmers harvested more than 3.3 billion bushels of soybeans valued at nearly $39 billion in 2010. But the Iowa Soybean Association said in a letter to APHIS the industry's share of the food oil market dropped from 83 percent to 68 percent after the FDA enacted the labeling requirements. Iowa grows more soybeans than any other state.
"We believe because of the trans-fat labeling, 4.6 billion pounds of edible soybean oil was not used for food over a three-year period," said Bob Callanan, a spokesman for the American Soybean Association. The oil was turned into biodiesel instead, and farmers got less money for their soybeans, he said.
Industry officials believe Vistive Gold could command as much as 60 cents more per bushel than other soybeans, raising a farmer's income by thousands of dollars.
Jim Andrew, who grows 625 acres of conventional soybeans near Jefferson, Iowa, said he hopes Vistive Gold soybeans also will reduce consumers' fears about biotech crops by providing a direct health benefit. Most genetically modified crops so far have been engineered to fight pests and increase harvests, benefiting farmers.
"I think it's a case where we're trying to modify crops to address specific needs to make other industries more efficient and healthier," Andrew said.
St. Louis-based Monsanto introduced a first generation of the bean, called Vistive, in 2005 to reduce or eliminate trans fats in response to the labeling requirements. Vistive Gold retains those qualities and offers lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of healthier monounsaturated fats.
Joe Cornelius, a Monsanto project manager who has worked on the Vistive soybeans for 15 years, said Vistive Gold could make a real difference in efforts to produce healthier foods. As an example, he said it could produce French fries with more than 60 percent less saturated fat.
"I don't think we can say fried food will ever be a health food, but you can improve the nutritional profile of that food," Cornelius said.
But Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, said Vistive Gold and other engineered crops don't face rigorous enough testing. No animal feeding trials were conducted on the new soybean to see what would happen when it was consumed, he said.
And, the FDA approved it based on the agency's review of a similar soybean produced by another company, not an actual review of Vistive Gold, he said, adding, "That struck me as very odd."
Without proper scrutiny, genetically modified crops have a "high potential for harmful and unintended consequences," such as increased toxicity that could make someone sick or decreased nutritional content, he said.
"Not every genetically modified crop is going to be dangerous," Freese said. "The bottom line is we need to have a really stringent regulatory system, which we currently don't have."
Monsanto said it tested Vistive Gold extensively and found it to be safe. A notice posted on the APHIS website in June said its assessment of Vistive Gold indicated the bean wasn't a risk to other plants.
Walter Fehr, an Iowa State University agronomist involved in soybean breeding research, said he thinks the federal government has a stringent and effective procedure for reviewing genetically modified crops and he saw no reason to question the soybean's safety.
"People use different methodologies for different things, and scientists are very aware of potential negative side effects," Fehr said.