Three soybeans in a pod

Tag, you're it!

October 1, 2023 | Jeff Hutton

Is it possible to know that the edamame salad you’re eating came from a specific farmer’s field in Iowa? Could we trace the evolution of a soybean planted in Iowa to the chicken, pork or beef dinner someone overseas might be enjoying?

That’s the belief and hope of at least one company, some farmers and consumers interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it’s possible to connect physical commodities to the digital supply chain data.

Making it work

During the U.S. Soybean Research Collaborative’s Soybean Research Forum and Think Tank in Indianapolis this summer, Index Biosystems’ David Singer, showcased the company’s BioTags technology.

Singer, the company’s co-founder and vice president of sales, says the prospect of BioTags would allow all interested parties to follow the soybean pod “through the entire supply chain — from the field to the elevator to the end product.”

BioTags are microscopic barcodes made from baker’s yeast that preserve the identity of products. Singer says Index Biosystems is defining a new category of traceability using that yeast to “create agricultural supply chains that are measurable, verifiable and sustainable.”

Applying the BioTags directly to the product via a spray, the company connects product data that can be detectable at any point in the supply chain.

Singer says his company welcomes the opportunity for soybean producers and all those within the supply chain to incorporate this technology as a way to help incentivize sustainable production, improve labeling, verify proof of claims and provide consumers with reassurance about their food's source and safety.

With its Trailhead software, Index Biosystems will enable “supply chain digitization and provide reliable product identification.”

Singer says BioTags sequences are safely added to yeast solely for traceability and identification and do not modify, add or delete any existing genes in the yeast. The technology and its traceability advantages have been successful in oat and wheat tests — in milled flour and in a load of bread made from the wheat.

He says yeast production techniques are well understood and easily scalable, allowing for efficient and inexpensive production.

With yeast already a commonly used product throughout the food system, Index’s BioTags are designed for seamless integration into production pipelines, according to the company. “In comparison to naked DNA barcode solutions, the structural features and inherent natural defenses of the yeast cell serve as an amazing protective capsule for our identifiers," Singer says. The result is a safe, easily scalable, reliable and uniquely traceable product.”

The website also notes that BioTags can be added, mixed, sprayed or affixed to any product that can benefit from end-to-end supply chain biological traceability and identification.

Unique BioTags can even be applied at multiple nodes along a supply chain or within subsections of a lot or component of a product. This flexibility of spatial and temporal granularity of where and when BioTags can be incorporated lets the BioTag tell the story of a product’s origin and journey from beginning to end.

Opportunity knocks

Think Tank participant and Iowa Soybean Association Past President Robb Ewoldt from Davenport says he’s excited about the prospect of this new technology.

“I think the technology is really interesting,” he says. “It gives farmers the potential to sell directly to the end user.”

For example, if an end user overseas wants just five shipping containers of a particular soybean, Ewoldt could send those marked beans down the Mississippi River and to its final destination, with all members of the supply chain able to follow its path from field to dinner plate.

“The full concept to me is just amazing,” says Aimee Bissell, a newly-elected ISA At-large director from Bedford.

But there may well be challenges, yet to be seen, with this technology.

Take comingled beans, for example. If tagged beans from Farm A should mix with non-tagged beans from Farm B in a co-op bin, will the baker’s yeast barcode mesh or rub off?

“How do you know whose beans are whose?” she asks.

Bissell wonders if the technology is consumer-driven or company-driven? Will it increase consumer trust?

“Regardless, we need to still look at what the consumer wants,” she says.

Ewoldt hopes the technology to tag beans, corn and other products, should it be implemented safely, will provide more value to farmers and their practices.

“I think there’s going to be more benefits to the soybean farmer to have this technology available,” he says. “There are great opportunities here.”