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"What's So Special About Specialty Soybeans? IL SOY Agronomist Weighs In..."

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Oilseed & Grain Media (January 18, 2022)

There are over 2,500 varieties of soybeans and they come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. They touch our lives hundreds of times a day, whether it’s in the food we eat or the personal care products we use, in the ink used to print newspapers, and so much more.

And while the traditional commodity soybean has been a workhorse for U.S. farmers and used in a myriad of products, there is a growing global market for specialty soybeans, particularly as consumers gravitate towards more healthy, plant-based foods and beverages. In fact, the global soy food market reached a value of US$42.1 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.2 percent during 2021-2026.

Specialty soybeans, which are oftentimes used in foods of Asian origin such as tofu, miso, natto, and tempeh, as well as in many energy and health foods, are generally grown to a buyers’ or brokers’ specifications. While more resources go into the growing of these specialty beans, there usually is the benefit of a higher price reaped for the farmer, as well as higher demand. This is evidenced by the fact that in 2020, the value of the U.S. soybean exports reached a record $25.7 billion, up nearly 40 percent by value and 23 percent by volume from the prior year.

The U.S. is one of the top producers of soybeans in the world (with Brazil at number one, and Argentina at number three) and the state of Illinois is the top producer in the country, having produced 605 million bushels of soybeans in 2020. To note, according to the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC), roughly 80 percent of non-GMO food-grade soybeans produced in the U.S. will be exported to other countries in 2021. This figure is roughly the same as the previous year and is expected to be about the same in 2022.

To get a better view into the specialty soybean market, Oilseed & Grain News spoke to Jennifer Jones, agronomy manager at the Illinois Soybean Association.

1). Please tell us more about specialty soybeans. What are the top three desired products and the final end products?

Specialty soybeans are available for farmers to grow outside of traditional commodity soybeans. Oftentimes with these specialty soybeans, the market or the buyer has different traits that are desired. For example, a commodity soybean, like a GMO soybean, has been genetically modified, mostly to have weed or herbicide resistance so that we can apply herbicides to kill off weeds and not kill the soybeans. But with specialty soybeans, like a non-GMO version, that trait hasn't been put in, which means we have to be more careful about our herbicide applications on those types of beans. That is a quality that is desired in the market from consumers who are maybe anti-GMO or looking for more of those conventional breeding techniques. Many times, these specialty soybeans are grown to satisfy consumer demand in the marketplace.

I would say three of the top desired products right now are non-GMO soybeans, organic food grade soybeans, and high oleic soybeans, which are all currently rising in popularity. Soybeans for seed are common as well. Non-GMO beans are typically used to make different soy food products, like soy milk and tofu for example. Organic food grade soybeans are also used for similar purposes to make food grade products, such as organic soy milk. High oleic soybeans produce an oil that has no trans fat, and they also have less saturated fat and higher amounts of monounsaturated fat compared to commodity soybeans. Monounsaturated fat is one of those healthy fats that we look for in our diet. Also, the shelf life and fryer life for high oleic soybean oil is longer than regular commodity soybean oil.

2). Why would a farmer consider planting specialty soybeans? What are the main benefits and challenges?

Specialty soybeans usually offer a higher premium payment to farmers than traditional commodity beans. Obviously that higher premium payment is of interest to farmers as they’ll bring in more revenue. This also is a great way for farmers who are looking to increase their revenue without increasing their farm acreage. Additionally, it could be a good option for farm families who are looking for ways to bring another family member into the operation, because they can increase their revenues to compensate that new person.

As far as challenges, specialty soybeans typically require more management. For example, the cost of those non-GMO beans is typically less than GMO varieties. But like I said earlier, the herbicide costs can be higher and it also requires more management with timely applications so there are trade-offs with that. Also with specialty soybeans, identity preservation is really important throughout the entire process of growing the crop – as are the handling, storage, and delivery process – for the crop to reach its final destination and buyer. There's more considerations to make sure the identity is preserved, and depending on the specialty crop that they're growing, there are certain additional requirements that have to be met.

3). What kind of demand/adoption for specialty beans has IL SOY seen from U.S. farmers?

The Illinois Soybean Association conducted a Producer Sentiment Survey in 2020 where we interviewed a small pool of farmers – 302 of them – and found that of those farmers, nearly one quarter were growing non-GMO soybeans. We’re also seeing, especially in the non-GMO and organic production of specialty soybeans, that farmers are more often utilizing conservation practices, like cover crops, as a tool to help them control weeds. We see plenty of opportunity for more conservation practices to be implemented in the specialty soybean management system as growers try to meet specific and particular market and buyer requirements.

4). As far as conservation efforts, what changes do you see going forward?

As farmers are adopting specialty beans into their system, we have seen an increase in cover crops and no-till methods, as both are successful conservation practices that we can use to not only protect the soil, but also reduce weed populations. Nutrient management is a big one as well. We encourage growers to utilize the four R's of nutrient management: utilizing nutrients in the right place at the right time, and using the right source and the right rate of nutrients. Regular soil testing is important too. Before farmers apply fertilizers, they should consider doing this testing to know the nutrient content in their soil before they apply. This helps better determine the level of application, which not only saves money, it helps ensure there won’t be over-application.

In my previous role with the University of Illinois Extension, I focused a lot on water quality, where we see many opportunities for improvement. The practices I just discussed are all important in-field management strategies, but we also advocate for edge-of-field practices, which are typically utilized in tile drainage systems. This includes practices like a woodchip bioreactor, which can help clean nitrogen out of tile drainage water before it enters waterways. We also have saturated buffers, which is another similar practice that filters the water through the soil profile so that nitrates can be de-nitrified from the water before entering waterways. Drainage water management is another edge-of-field practice that is a control structure that farmers can put on their tile lines to keep water backlogged into their field. This solution is especially important during the winter precipitation events so that they’re not losing nutrients rapidly through tile drainage. It can also be useful in the summer to hold water in the field during drought periods.

5). What traits are currently being developed for new breeds? Which have come to the forefront as most important or desired?

The high oleic soybean stands out to me as one of the most popular traits currently being developed. As I said earlier, it's on the rise because of its ability to produce oil with no trans fat, lower saturated fat, and higher monounsaturated fat – that healthy fat – compared to the commodity soybean oil. Many other conventional vegetable oils don't have the same desirable numbers as the high oleic soybean. I think this is one that we'll continue to see growing into the future with more expansion and research into that product.


Do you have a story you'd like to contribute to WIA Today? Or a suggestion for a story, or comments about an article? Please reach out to Michelle Marshall at and share your thoughts. We'd love to hear from you.

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