Perdue backs technology designed to boost oil and protein content of soybeans without risking yield

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/ICHIRO
© GettyImages/ICHIRO

Related tags: Soy, Protein, yield, renewable diesel

US based soy processor, Perdue AgriBusiness, and startup, ZeaKal, have announced a multi-year development agreement to raise more sustainable poultry through improved soy genetics and feed quality.

ZeaKal tweaks genetic crop traits​ to improve their rates of photosynthesis. In soybeans, it claims its PhotoSeed technology has consistently resulted in improved oil and protein content while improving the sustainability index of the crop.

The San Diego based biotech reported that, during the 2021 growing season, PhotoSeed soybean events increased oil composition by 12% while increasing protein by one point.

Boost for poultry feed

For Perdue, with its grain and oilseed processing business and poultry production arm, under the Perdue Foods entity, elevating the oil and protein content of soybeans is mission critical. 

Perdue AgriBusiness handles about three million acres’ worth of soybeans per year. Transforming this acreage to PhotoSeed soy, it said, means growers will benefit from a higher value crop and Perdue gains access to beans with improved oil and higher protein in the resulting meal.

“As we evaluated our supply chain, it became clear that moving upstream to access better seed genetics could improve value and sustainability in ways other solutions simply could not. As PhotoSeed soy develops, we expect it will be transformative for Perdue across soy processing and specialty oils, while improving the quality of feed,”​ said Perry Aulie, senior VP of value-added products, Perdue AgriBusiness.

A spokesperson for Perdue Agribusiness told us it anticipates that the first products will be introduced in 2024, with new product iterations from ZeaKal’s pipeline over the course of the next four to six years. 

"This is exciting innovation and business model that Perdue and ZeaKal will be communicating with growers over the next two seasons."

Will Perdue have to make any adjustments to its soy processing operations to accommodate this optimized soybean?

"The collaboration and lead time to market gives Perdue early access and a first-mover advantage to the PhotoSeed technology. During this time, we will learn what, if any, adjustments to our operations are needed to fully capture the improved nutritional profile of PhotoSeed soy,​" added the representative.

Yield at the expense of nutritional value

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.  

But ZeaKal 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.

Farmers have historically been compensated for their crop yields, which unfortunately has directed seed R&D to prioritize yield, often at the expense of nutritional quality, said the biotech. In soybeans, this has led to a steady deterioration of protein levels over the past decade, it claims.

"Year-over-year improvements in soy yields come at the expense of nutritional density (trading protein for carbohydrates), forcing end users to find alternatives. 

"Misaligned incentives along the supply chain contribute to this problem; as end users value oil and protein, while growers—and indirectly, seed companies—are paid on yield (BU/acre). Protein demand has been met with an increase in acreage, resulting in the destruction of natural habitats and community displacement.

"These conflicting incentives result in a race to the bottom, deteriorating soy’s value and demand."

Shifting soy market 

Former Bunge procurement director, Gordon Denny, who is on the ZeaKal advisory board and who also advices the United Soybean Board and US Soybean Export Council, previously commented that the global soybean market was set to see 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.”

Zeakal weighed in on that. Historically, it said, soybean oil has provided about 33% of the value of a bushel of soybeans. It is now anticipated that soybean oil will exceed 50% of the bean’s value due to unprecedented global demand for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel.  

It expects the improved oil and protein from PhotoSeed to add around US$6B in value for the soybean crop.

A startup to keep an eye on

Michael Lavin, founder and managing partner of Chicago based, Germin8 Ventures, a purpose-driven VC firm that invests in companies fixing the global food system, told this site,​ in May last year, that ZeaKal was a company to watch:

“ZeaKal is a startup with really interesting science. It can enhance the nutritional profile of soybeans but without the drag on yield and that is something which is needed in the feed markets, this technology could benefit a market like aquaculture, a farming sector that is going to have to outsize conventional fishing, certainly by 2050 in order to meet demand and create a sustainable food system.”

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