By Tim Alexander
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Soybean producers will face a burgeoning market for non-GMO and other types of specialty soybeans in a post-pandemic America. This is according to Molly Stalker, specialty grains leader for Cargill, Inc., who told attendees of the virtual 2021 Illinois Soybean Summit that her company expects a return to pre-pandemic growth for both human-consumed and feed-grade specialty beans.
“Just before COVID hit last year, our last survey showed that about 50 percent of consumers try to seek out foods that do not contain GMOs. A few years ago that (ratio) was only 40 percent. It also showed that 27 percent of consumers are willing to pay 10 percent more or greater for foods and beverages that are not genetically modified,” said Stalker, adding that a growing segment of U.S. consumers are sending a clear message that they are interested exclusively in values-based food choices.
“Seventy percent of anti-GMO consumers cited health and well-being concerns as the reason they avoid genetically modified foods, and 43 cited food transparency. Over 30 percent had concerns over environmental impact — even though GMOs can actually help minimize environmental impact — and one-third (of survey respondents) said they just don’t trust big agriculture,” Stalker reported.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank for specialty growers: a year of living under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions has stalled market momentum for specialty crops, according to Stalker.
“It was out of necessity. Shopping behaviors and eating behaviors had to change due to supply chain disruption or due to restaurants shutting down,” she said. “Long term consumer trends have hit a bit of a snag. They haven’t completely reversed, but we’ve seen some interesting dynamics. While we are seeing some growth in organic, it’s not at quite the pace as it was pre-COVID. There has been much more of a return to shelf staple items and items with preservatives in them, along with comfort foods. Hot dogs and mac-and-cheese sales are way up. There has also been a lot of ‘stress baking’ going on.”
Though the long-term effects of the COVID pandemic on consumer food buying habits have yet to be revealed, Stalker said Cargill is optimistic for a return to the pre-COVID trends their surveys revealed a little over a year ago. “It will take time as businesses are allowed to open back up and employment returns to near pre-COVID levels, but we fully expect a continuation of the data we had seen a year ago,” she said.
Stalker noted that specialty markets exist for non-GMO food and feed grade, GMO hi-pro, high oleic, tofu and organic beans, along with a wide range of programs available to growers who aren’t afraid to step outside their comfort zones. “Specialty programs, because they are different, have to incentivize growers to do something different,” she explained. “The premium could be paid on the basis of purity, or a specific variety or quality. Premiums are very wide ranging from as low as 40 cents per bushel to over $2 or $3 per bushel. Typically, the higher the premium the more involved or complex (production) is.”
Stalker advised potential growers to enter into contracts to produce specialty crops for companies only when completely familiar with what the buyer expects to be “different” about the soybean they will be producing — and are prepared to grow the product in strict adherence to the buyer’s prescribed methods. It is also important to have a full understanding of how prices are calculated and to be completely familiar with all documentation and certification requirements. Most importantly, producers should be completely confident that the specialty crop they will be asked to grow is a proper “fit” for their farming operation.
“Specialty is not a fit for everybody, with the extra work required,” Stalker said. “There is going to be additional equipment cleaning involved. If you grow a traited corn and a non-GMO bean, you have to think about how you are going to harvest them. If you harvest your corn first you are going to have to thoroughly clean that combine before you harvest the beans.”
There are other considerations, as well. Cash flow timing can be a challenge. On-farm storage bins can provide flexibility in the timing of sales, but will also require cleaning to avoid contamination by commercial crop residue. There is a potential for extra weed management with non-GMO programs.
In addition, transportation access to specialty grain purchasers can be an issue for many farmers, with many contracted growers driving more than 100 miles to deliver their products. In addition, contracts can call for delivery to be coordinated to the buyer’s demands.
Still, many of Cargill’s contracted specialty crop growers have reported positive experiences from growing non-GMO beans, Cargill reported.
“Assuming yield is similar, a non-GMO soybean with a $1.50 premium on it compared to a commodity soybean delivered in the same time frame (will yield) $79 additional revenue per acre, and that’s real money,” said Stalker, while noting that it can be slightly more expensive to produce some specialty crops. “This is something that is worth looking at, especially if (the crop) is compatible with your farming operation.”