U.S. farmers might lose as much as 4 million acres of annual soybean production if regulators move too quickly to ban trans fats in processed food, according to the American Soybean Association.
The Food and Drug Administration said last week it’s on a "clear track" to banning partially hydrogenated oils, the main vehicle for trans fats, because of links to heart disease. About 8 million acres of soybean-oil demand already has been lost since concerns about trans fat began prompting food processors and restaurants to switch to healthier alternatives, said American Soybean Association President Danny Murphy.
"We understand the logic and the need for it, but we just want to make sure the FDA doesn’t totally disturb the market by moving really quickly," Murphy, who grows corn and soybeans on his farm in Canton, Mississippi, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "We stand to lose substantial market share."
U.S. farmers are forecast to harvest 75.7 million acres of soybeans, the Department of Agriculture said Nov. 8. Soybean futures have dropped 6.8 percent in Chicago this year.
The food industry has voluntarily cut trans fats in processed foods by more than 73 percent since 2005, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The Nov. 8 announcement by FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on trans fats means a ban is likely after two decades of battles with public health advocates.
While trans fats occur naturally in some meat and dairy, most of that found in processed food are vegetable oils treated with hydrogen to improve texture, stabilize flavors and extend shelf life. Hydrogenation converts liquid oil into a solid.
The soybean industry is now counting on regulators to approve so-called high-oleic soybeans, varieties genetically engineered by Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. to be stable without hydrogenation. Once the new generation of modified soybeans gets all the regulatory approvals, the industry plans to regain market share with 18 million acres of heart-healthy plants by 2023, according to the United Soybean Board.
DuPont’s Plenish soybean can eliminate trans fats and reduce saturated fats by 20 percent in foods such as potato chips. It’s been approved by all soy importers except the European Union, said Russ Sanders, director of food and industry markets for DuPont’s Pioneer seed unit. Plenish was planted on as few as 100,000 acres in the U.S. this year because of export concerns, he said.
Monsanto’s Vistive Gold is engineered to produce soybean oil with zero trans fats and 60 percent less saturated fat than conventional beans. Vistive Gold has been approved for planting in the U.S., Canada and Mexico and is being planted in "limited quantities" pending import approvals from the EU and China, Gayla Daugherty, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based company, said in an e-mail.
A trans fat ban could help demand for canola, palm oil and animal fat, said Anne Frick, an analyst at Jefferies Bache LLC in New York.
Dow Chemical Co. is already benefiting from trans fat concerns with its heart-healthy canola, marketed as Nexera, which required no regulatory approvals because it was conventionally bred. Nexera canola supplied 1.5 billion pounds of oil this year to the 24 billion pound North American vegetable oil market, said David Dzisiak, commercial leader for grains and oils at Midland, Michigan-based Dow.
"There’s still several billion pounds of hydrogenated oils being used and we can replace those," he said by phone.