California based company claims technology boosts protein levels in soybeans

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Zoya2222
© GettyImages/Zoya2222

Related tags Protein Soybean carbon capture

A San-Diego biotech that tweaks genetic crop traits to improve their rates of photosynthesis, says new data shows its PhotoSeed technology can improve the oil, protein, and sustainability profile of soybeans.

In that way the technology can deliver greater nutritional composition and profitability across the supply chain, said ZeaKal.

Across multiple field sites spanning top US producing soybean states, PhotoSeed increased oil composition up to 17% and protein up to 7% on a dry weight basis – with consistent yields comparable to modern cultivars, said the startup.

Building on data it released previously, that agtech focused company said its 2020 trials prove that its technology delivered better carbon capture and overall nutritional composition in a year when the industry recorded an all-time low in soy protein levels. “This year’s data shows we’ve taken PhotoSeed one step further to decouple the 2:1 inverse genetic relationship between protein and oil, which has been an industry-accepted sacrifice,”​ said Greg Bryan, CTO, ZeaKal.

Consistent results across multiple geographies and growing seasons suggest the technology can achieve greater returns for farmers, processors, and end users on existing acres, he added.

Traditionally, increasing oil or protein meant sacrificing the other or reducing yield. This is because soy oil and protein historically have an inverse relationship: if oil increases by 1%, protein drops by 2%, and composition improvements typically have a yield penalty. Over time, as breeders have prioritized yield, the consequence has been declines in protein.

But the biotech claims that PhotoSeed decouples the inverse oil-protein relationship. It increases both of these co-products in plants while maintaining the yields that growers demand.

The trait technology helps crops – rice, corn, soy or sugarcane - to capture more carbon and sunlight leading to nutrient rich food and animal food, but with a smaller environmental footprint. With that nutrient density advantage, the company maintains that PhotoSeed soy can elevate cash crush margins for processors.

© ZeaKal

Structural shifts in soybean segment

Today, the R&D pipelines of several leading soybean seed producers have solely prioritized yield and agronomics that often come at the expense of composition valued by the processors and end users of soybeans, said the technology provider. However, as the world’s demands for plant oils and protein continue to increase and outstrip production at an unprecedented pace, yield alone will no longer be sufficient to sustainably meet that demand, it argues.

Former Bunge procurement director, Gordon Denny, who is on the ZeaKal advisory board and also advices the United Soybean Board and US Soybean Export Council, weighed in on that: “Early indicators suggest the global soybean market is experiencing vast structural shifts. Even as we focus on protein, the pressure for oil is more urgent. Without new technology like PhotoSeed, which can equitably deliver desired grain composition, the food system will have a difficult time responding to demand for high energy and nutrition crops over the next decade without major pressure on food security and prices.”

According to several soybean industry experts, the percent of gross processing margin attributable to oil versus meal is increasing dramatically from its typical range of 30-33%, despite making up only approximately 18% of its weight. In recent months, soybean oil has grown to more than 40% and is predicted to reach 50% of the bean’s value soon. In emerging countries where soybean oil prices have doubled, the effects of inflation and rising food costs are already being felt. By increasing both oil and protein, ZeaKal said PhotoSeed can create a more profitable way for densifying nutrition while keeping food prices stable.

Funding, commercialization

The startup clinched US$15m in a Series C funding round in September 2019. It was led by agtech funds, Finistere Ventures, Middleland Capital, and Canopy Rivers.

Its technology is now edging closer to commercialization. Soybeans cultivated with ZeaKal’s PhotoSeed will be available to US farmers in the 2024 growing season.

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