ISA CEO Kirk Leeds

(Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Executive Insights: New Uses

February 15, 2021 | Kirk Leeds

Frame the topic of new uses.

It’s about moving soybeans. ISA’s directors are always thinking about what we can do to increase market opportunities and demand. New uses are a part of that discussion. That might mean rediscovering things we attempted 70 years ago, like the first diesel engine powered by peanut oil. Since then, we’ve pursued many ways to use vegetable oil in all kinds of products. Now, we have better science and technology to accelerate these projects. 

Henry Ford is often part of the conversation about new uses for soybeans. Why?

Back in the 1920s and early 30s, Henry Ford built a soybean lab near the Ford Motor plant in Deerfield, Michigan. In that lab, a team looked at diversifying ag crops into other products. The focus quickly turned to soybeans because of their composition and versatility. Soon, the team was developing plastics, upholstery and fuels while also studying opportunities to increase protein consumption. Ford often remarked that he would be remembered more for what he did for soybeans than the auto industry.

What was the genesis of Ford’s fascination with soybeans?

Growing up on a dairy farm, Ford wasn’t fond of the labor that came with ag production. He wanted to diversify from the labor intensity of farming to mechanization and innovation. That evolution would create greater demand for ag products. Ford urged farmers to have one leg in industry and the other in agriculture. Only by bringing the two together could you sustain markets for ag products. Ford was clearly ahead of his time in thinking broadly about the role of soybeans and developing additional market opportunities for the oilseed. 

What happened to Ford’s soybean lab?

Years ago, Iowa partnered with the Michigan Soybean Board to reopen the lab and tell the story of soybeans through his eyes. It’s part of Greenfield Village, a thriving destination for all who are intrigued by Ford’s obsession with innovation.

How is ISA innovating the use of soy?

We’ve funded research into how to use the molecules in soybean oil for application in other products. Modifying soybean oil holds tremendous promise, from creating healthier products for human consumption to incorporating it in the manufacturing of a wide variety of products — from tires, carpets and artificial turf to paints, solvents and biodiesel.

How do new uses fit within the larger soybean product portfolio?

Nearly a third of soybean oil produced is used in biodiesel while 98% of soybean meal is fed to livestock, poultry and fish. If you include biodiesel and aquaculture feed, the “new uses” category is indeed creating demand and adding value to the price of every bushel of soybeans. Additional applications – from plastics and solvents to carpet and turf – represent a relatively slight piece of the overall soybean market. But it’s the growth you’re looking for because more demand adds value. 

What challenges exist for broadening the use of soybean oil?

Anything made from petrochemicals can theoretically be made from soybean oil. But is it economical and can you support claims that it is more sustainable? Regardless of the application, new products must be cost competitive. They must also be proven to work as good, if not better, than the alternative. It’s often more difficult to replace an existing product than create a new one. 

Does that represent an opportunity for the soybean checkoff?

Yes. Most companies prefer to remain with the tried and true rather than invest time and money in developing new products. Historically, this includes tire manufacturers and asphalt companies. If you’re building 40 miles of road, do you really want to be the first to try soybean oil instead of a proven petroleum-based product? Probably not, as there are liability issues and significant costs to being wrong. It takes time and money to demonstrate that new products will work. The soybean checkoff is well-suited for this work and has a proven track record of bringing concepts to reality.

This story was originally published in the February 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.