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APRIL 2009



Better living through GM oilseeds is practically in our grasp

Ivan Lerner,
ICIS Chemical Business,
April 23, 2009

WHILE GENETICALLY manipulated (GM) oilseed crops have been produced to contain herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, their "greatest potential," says the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), lies in their potential to improve on their nutritional and industrial properties.

The focus is shifting from benefits to farmers, to benefits to consumers in the form of better nutrition and ease of use. The primary oilseeds are soy, rape (including canola), peanut, palm and sunflower. According to USDA, in 2002, over 320m tonnes (both GM and non-) were produced globally with a value of about $60bn (€45.7bn). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that roughly 408m tonnes of oilseeds will be produced globally in 2009.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), soy represented 37%, or $2.8bn of the GM crop market in 2008. Canola provided about $200m, or 3%. The global value of biotech crops reached $7.5bn last year, and is projected to grow to $8.3bn in 2009. The ISAAA is a not-for-profit organization that provides new agricultural biotechnologies to developing countries. Biotech crops were grown on over 125m hectares in 25 countries in 2008, a 9.4% increase in global acreage from 2007.

GM soy was the principle biotech crop in 2007, with 51% of the global genetically modified organism (GMO) area, 58.6m hectares, says ISAAA. Canola held 5% with 5.5m hectares. Meanwhile, 58.6% of the global soy crop was GM in 2007. That year, 216m tonnes of soybeans were produced.

When US-based Monsanto, the world's largest GM seed trait firm, develops new technologies for use in oilseeds, they fall into two primary categories - value-added benefits and agronomic benefits. Value-added benefits are attributes that directly benefit consumers and processors; agronomic benefits are those that directly benefit farmers.

"Traditionally, benefits in soybeans have been on the agronomic side," says Ben Kampelman, manager, public affairs, for Monsanto. Commercialized in 1996, Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans are used on more than 90% of US soybean acres. This year, the company is introducing the brand's next generation.

"The performance of biotechnology traits like Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, as well as breeding advancements and better management practices, give us the confidence to commit to doubling average yields in the US, based on yields in 2000," says Kampelman. Currently, yields average roughly 40 bushels/acre. "By 2030, we expect average yields in the United States will be about 80 bushels per acre," he says.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, a business of US-based chemical giant DuPont, is launching high oleic soybeans this year, pending regulatory approval and ongoing field testing

"This is the first biotech soybean trait with direct consumer benefits," says Julie Kenney, public affairs representative for Pioneer. "High oleic soybeans will offer nutritional benefits to consumers and functional benefits to the food industry."

Scheduled for introduction in 2011 is Pioneer's Optimum GAT soybeans which enhance weed control options for soybean growers and provide improved crop performance. Monsanto, meanwhile, is developing soybeans with stearidonic acid (SDA) omega-3 fatty acids, as well as its own high oleic soybeans.

These new oilseeds will be built on the company's Vistive brand soybeans. "The oil from these beans doesn't need to be hydrogenated to improve stability," Kampelman says. "This helps companies like [US-based restaurant chain] KFC produce [fried] chicken with no trans fats." Monsanto has been working with Germany's BASF Plant Science on the production of healthy fatty acids in canola oil, including omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) as well as a mixture of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for food, feed and dietary supplement applications.

"Plants do not produce these healthy fatty acids, but a number of other organisms like algae, fungi and mosses do," explains Andy Beadle, project manager at BASF Plant Science.

Genes from those organisms were identified, characterized and transferred into canola, and then the best combination was determined through thorough examination, he said. EPA and EPA/DHA in the canola oil have been identified and are currently being developed into commercial products. "For the very first time, plants [are] producing commercial levels of the healthy fatty acids," says Beadle. Commercial production is expected around the middle of next decade, notes the company.

In May 2008, US-based Dow AgroSciences and US-based Martek Biosciences agreed to jointly develop and commercialize a canola seed that produces the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA. "Nutritionists are now recommending that people increase their consumption of DHA, as most consumers don't get enough in their diets today," says Daniel Kittle, global research and development leader and vice president for Dow AgroSciences.

DHA omega-3 is a long-chain fatty acid that serves as the primary structural fatty acid found in the brain and the eyes, and supports brain, eye and cardiovascular health throughout life.

"Yet despite its importance, Americans have among the lowest dietary intakes of DHA omega-3 in the world," notes Kittle.

When commercialized, Dow AgroSciences and Martek's new healthy oil will be marketed to the food industry as part of Dow AgroSciences' "next generation" of food industry oils. The companies have not released a timetable, but anticipate that this project will be a multiyear effort.

Meanwhile, via its Nexera line of canola and sunflower seeds, Dow AgroSciences has created a series of oils it calls Omega-9s, with zero trans fat and high levels of monounsaturated (omega-9) fat. Since canola natually has zero trans fat and low saturated fat, the company's goal was to add a higher omega-9 content. The resulting product, says David Dzisiak, Dow AgroSciences' commercial leader for oils, can allow up to 50% longer fry life than partially hydrogenated soybean oil and other commonly used frying oils.