The power of the sun boosts soybean oil, protein, and the supply chain

Perdue AgriBusiness, part of Perdue Farms, a 102-year-old family company, has embraced innovation in its pursuit to feed America, particularly as the cracks in the food supply chain have recently widened.

“A resilient supply chain begins with farmers,” says Perry Aulie, senior vice president of value-added products for Perdue AgriBusiness, one of the largest soybean processors that works with farmers responsible for approximately 3 million acres of soybeans per year. The company announced a development agreement with ZeaKal this year to bring value to the entire food system and invest in the success of its farmer-growers.

ZeaKal’s flagship plant trait technology, PhotoSeed, helps crops capture more carbon and sunlight. In soybeans, this has resulted in a crop that produces more oil and protein without compromising yield. As part of the venture, Perdue is aiming to provide soybeans with the PhotoSeed trait to farmers  and, as the main protein source in poultry feed, the benefits are realized at every stage from field through to the dinner table.

“A collaboration like this establishes that nutrient density and improved sustainability, not just yield, are valued,” Han Chen, co-founder and chief executive officer of ZeaKal, says.

The farmer “being at the center” is a philosophy shared by both companies.

“We work with farmers whose families have sold to us for generations,” Aulie says. “The majority of what is grown in the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) is sold to us. They rely on us and we commit to buy what they grow.”

“We want to improve the resilience and durability of grower  incomes to ensure that they remain the backbone of our food system,” says Chen. “Together with Perdue, we can lower cost for growers, mitigate their risk, and provide diversified income streams beyond just yield.”

Sustainability, Technology, and the Poultry Industry

Aulie says, “Great chickens begin with the sun.” The PhotoSeed trait technology aligns with this philosophy as it capitalizes on the process of photosynthesis and creates extra energy for the plant.

Chen explains that every plant manifests the extra energy in different ways. In soybeans, the result is a boost in oil and protein, which are energy-intensive to produce.

“Usually, oil and protein have an inverse relationship where there is a trade-off,” Chen says. “The fact that we’re elevating the crop overall with more energy and better photosynthetic capacity means that we’re able to improve both the oil and protein content without changing the in-field yield for the farmers.”

Perdue sees efficiencies all the way through the chain. The company moves about 15 billion pounds of product from farmers to food or feed applications. The 12% increase in oil composition leads to more productive acres; it means higher value beans are processed at facilities and the nutrient density of the resulting feed is increased; the chickens are better-nourished; and Perdue’s oil production can increase and expand into other applications.

For the Future

Chen and the ZeaKal team see an opportunity for trait technologies like PhotoSeed to help solve the urgent, global challenges of carbon emissions reduction and food security.

“If you look at the number of new players entering agriculture such as transitional energy companies and the steel in the ground that’s being built to produce renewable jet fuel or diesel, that adds pressure and strain to the agricultural supply chain,” Chen says. “And no matter which demand forecast you look at, there is not enough acres in the world to fully meet that demand.”

ZeaKal’s increased nutritional and energy density on a per-acre basis will make a difference.

“The 12% increase in oil yield could represent an additional 10 million acres of soybean oil production,” Chen explains. “That is 10 million acres that we don’t have to destroy natural habitats for and repurpose, especially with food security issues.”

Chen says a new system that allows its stakeholders to think about these problems beyond just bushels per acre is critical.

“We really believe that all of the pieces to do this already exist in the U.S. supply chain,” Chen says. “We would like to see a change across U.S. agriculture to harmonize our supply chain, repurpose the assets that are out there, and start thinking about agriculture from a value vs. volume standpoint.”

Continuous improvement has always been a priority for Perdue. Over time, the team has implemented processes and innovation to eliminate the use of antibiotics, has invested in welfare advantages for the chickens, and doesn’t use any animal byproducts in its…

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