Reid Weiland feels good about the soybeans he's planting on his Garner, Iowa, farm this spring. Higher in protein and lower in oligosaccharides than the average commodity soybean, they become high-performance feed for the aquaculture industry. In turn, planting the specialty crop allows Weiland to participate in an elevated value chain that is both financially and personally rewarding.
"It's surprising how satisfying it is to know products I can find at the grocery have a direct relationship to the soybeans I grow. That's a feeling that I don't get from just hauling beans to the crusher," says Weiland of the 3,000 acres of high-protein soybeans he'll grow this year for Benson Hill, a St. Louis-based food-tech firm working to close the supply chain loop from seed to fork.
Specialty grain markets are far from new, but there's a nutritious twist to several of today's efforts. Whether it's being stoked by more eating at home during the pandemic period, supply chain squeezes, the increase in food costs or just an overall awareness about health and nutrition, consumers are demanding more food value from what they eat.
It's not that calories no longer matter, but consumers are increasingly personalizing food as science and medicine converge to create demand for consumables that are healthier for people, animals and the planet.
APPETITE FOR CHANGE
Finding food solutions that produce more nutrition per acre, ensure traceability from a domestically sourced supply and optimize costs across the system while still tasting good and being readily accessible is a tall order, notes Benson Hill CEO Matt Crisp.
But, that's exactly the kind of disruption and mindset that Crisp thinks is needed to meet this new appetite for nutritional change. "Companies working on seed improvement have a unique opportunity and responsibility to help address climate, health and equity challenges in our food system," he says.
Plant genomics are driving those advancements within Benson Hill through conventional breeding that's enabled by technology, dodging some of the genetic modification (GM) issues that have led to consumer heartburn in the past.
Golden rice, for example, was first genetically engineered in 2000 to produce high levels of beta-carotene. Globally heralded as a potential answer to vitamin A deficiencies, which lead to childhood blindness, the breakthrough became mired in controversy and regulation. In recent years, several countries have approved golden rice for consumption, but in 2022, the Philippines became the first country to take baby steps toward growing it as a crop.
Those are bottlenecks Crisp wants to avoid. "Modern breeding techniques can leverage the vast and underutilized natural genetic diversity of plants with greater speed and precision than ever before," he says. "Data is the currency to reveal insights across the value chain as well as to fuel genomic innovation. We believe this combination unlocks new products to serve as the building blocks for better food."
MAKE EVERY BITE COUNT
The goal is to increase the nutritional density in foods. Benson Hill's efforts are currently deployed on soybean and yellow pea, but Crisp thinks that potential is there in other crops.
Commodity soybeans typically contain 42% protein or less on a dry weight basis and yield soy flour under 55% protein. Benson Hill's proprietary soybeans can reach over 45% protein and result in soy flour that is 60% protein or higher. These higher levels of protein can eliminate the need to make soy protein concentrate (SPC), which saves energy and water.
Benson Hill soy flour is being used in established markets for snacks, baked goods and meat extensions. It's also a functional alternative to traditional SPC for plant-based protein alternatives to meat, dairy and other emerging categories.
Aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food-production sectors, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (of the United Nations, FAO). Farmed species such as salmon and trout have especially high-protein dietary requirements. Rations that include high-protein soy lower the carbon and water footprint, and the company has several aquafeed collaborations.
On the high oleic oil side of the ledger, Benson Hill's Veri brand cooking oil offers 10 grams of Omega-9 fatty acids per serving, like those in olive oil. This oil has the advantage of performing in all styles of cooking while imparting little flavor. Last year, Veri brand oil became available through an online order system.
TEARING DOWN SILOS
Crisp cofounded Benson Hill in 2012. "If I had to boil this company down to one phrase, it is that we are linking the interests of farmers with consumers. We're building a bridge in a food system, which, frankly, has been previously built in a segregated, siloed, commodity-oriented manner," he explains.
"To do this, we need to break away from the mentality that specialty or high value or closed loop means niche," he adds. The 2022 purchase of a crush plant in Iowa and a relationship with grain giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) are signs that what the company is doing to bring more nutritious, more sustainable and better food options to market is scalable, he says.
Weiland began his Benson Hill relationship with 300 acres in 2021 and this year plans to devote the farm's entire soybean acreage to one 2.3 relative maturity variety, in large part to limit contamination concerns.
Benson Hill offers three categories of soybeans: high and ultrahigh protein; high oleic/low linolenic; and a combination of high protein/oil. So far, production is in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota, with 12 different varieties in the seed portfolio.
Since Weiland's corn crop is mostly non-GM, he is accustomed to negotiating weed control without traits. He rotates land to soybeans every third year, which helps keep tough-to-control weeds in check.
Contracts come with agronomic support and certain stipulations. "We're not selling seed," Crisp notes. "We're providing seed in a licensing manner. We're interested in the output. If we don't successfully produce high-protein, high-quality crops, then we don't win together."
It is a recipe Weiland had been searching for as the family farm reevaluated priorities. "When I started farming, the answer to growth was to buy more machinery and try to eliminate people from the equation," he recalls. "Today, our farm has the infrastructure to get off the commodity treadmill and people with the skill sets to do more and to produce something special."
Contracts are currently being extended for the 2024 crop.
Fiber is necessary to maintain digestive health, lower cholesterol and control blood sugar levels. But, more than 90% of women and 97% of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.
Enter high-fiber wheat flour from Bay State Milling. Made from a non-GMO, high-amylose variety of wheat with an endosperm high in resistant starch, it was codeveloped by Limagrain Group and Australia-based scientific agency CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), a union called Arista Cereal Technologies.
Jillian Wishman, Bay State Milling marketing, says the 124-year-old Massachusetts-based, family-owned company was selected as the strategic partner to mill and distribute the innovation in 2017. The first brand, HealthSense High-Fiber Wheat Flour by Bay State Milling, represents a tenfold increase in fiber content compared to traditional wheat flour and is being used in everything from better-for-you ice cream cones and sugar cookies to the LEANguini dishes featured at the popular franchise Noodles and Co.
As the pandemic gave rise to home bread bakers, Bay State saw an opportunity to distribute a healthier flour called Flourish direct to consumers. It is sold online through the company website (https://www.flourish-flour.com/…) and Amazon.
Designed to be used like all-purpose flour, a serving of Flourish contains 6 grams of fiber compared to 1 gram of fiber in traditional flour, which also trims net carbohydrates and calories.
"Consumers want more out of their food, and we like to say there's no 'ish' in Flourish," Wishman says. "The grain is sourced from an exclusive community of farmers and milled into flour that is naturally higher in prebiotic fiber, which helps promote immunity.
"Even better, it bakes up yummy," she says.
-- Learn more about the specifics of Benson Hill at https://www.bensonhillfarmers.com/…
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