Plant extracts safety shield for food

Got soy? From tofu to soy milk, Pengyin Chen believes there's a lot of room for growth in niche markets for soybeans, and he's working hard at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station to make sure Arkansas farmers can claim a place in the industry.

Chen, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture soybean breeder, is combing the USDA soybean germplasm collection for material he can use to breed specialized beans adapted to Arkansas.

“Japan is the largest importer of U.S. food-grade soybeans, buying more than 50 million bushels annually,” Chen said. “In America, soybean consumption is growing as people become aware of the health benefits and nutritional value, including high protein, calcium and fiber content. Growing demand for soybeans are creating opportunities for producers to get higher prices for specialized beans.”

Chen spends most of his time on improving conventional varieties for Arkansas' mainstream soybean production. But he believes the additional time he devotes to specialized soybeans could yield extra profit for producers looking for opportunities in niche markets.

Using conventional crossbreeding techniques, Chen has produced breeding lines of soybeans that are twice the size of typical U.S.-grown beans, and other lines that are half the size.

“The larger soybeans are preferred for products such as tofu, miso (a paste made from soybean and rice), soy nuts and soy milk,” he said. “The smaller beans are desired for making natto (a Japanese food made of fermented soybeans) and bean sprouts.”

He harvested these breeding lines in 2002 and will make selections for advanced lines to be planted this year. Among the traits he's looking for in advanced lines are yields comparable to the traditional soybeans producers are used to.

“I've matched yields for the larger soybeans,” he said. “The smaller soybeans are producing smaller yields, but they're up to about 90 percent of typical yield for Arkansas soybeans.”

Other challenges for developing specialized soybeans include selections for appropriate maturity, disease resistance, and resistance to lodging and shattering. He's also working on varying color (chocolate-colored beans, for example, are desirable for soy nuts), increasing protein content and adjusting flavor to match Western tastes.

“We know the genes that produce the ‘beanny’ flavor preferred in the Orient, but disliked in Western cultures,” Chen said. “By reducing this flavor and increasing the sucrose content, to produce a sweeter bean, we can develop a specialty bean for soy products that suit American tastes.”

Such specialty soybeans will be suitable for relatively small markets that will demand organically-produced products that are not genetically-modified.

Fred Miller is science editor for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

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