Arkansas soybean producers looking to diversify with a specialty crop may not have to look very far. One of the state's main specialty crops is soybeans for niche markets.

Arkansas has the potential to be the major source of non-GMO (not genetically modified) soybean seed, beans and products in the United States, Drew Oliver said at a May 8 meeting of the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board in the Food Science Department of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's Research and Extension Center near the U of A campus.

Oliver is a Crittenden County farmer who heads the International Marketing and Industry Relations Committee of the ASPB, which manages checkoff funds paid by soybean producers and processors to support research and promotion.

The vast majority of soybeans grown since the mid-1990s have been genetically modified by the insertion of a gene that makes them resistant to certain herbicides, which simplified weed control and reduced the amount of herbicides released into the environment. However, constant exposure to the same herbicide has resulted in resistant weed populations, which has caused some farmers to plant non-GMO soybean seed and use more comprehensive weed management practices.

The Division of Agriculture's soybean breeding program has produced high yielding, Arkansas adapted non-GMO varieties that are marketed by the state's seed industry. Arkansas is a leading state in the production and marketing of soybean seed.

Consumers who prefer food labeled as free of genetically modified ingredients have created a market for non-GMO soybean food products. Some Arkansas farmers grow non-GMO soybeans under contract with companies or marketing groups for production of non-GMO soy products such as edamame, tofu, soymilk, natto and others.

The Division of Agriculture breeding program supported by the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board and conducted by Professor Pengyin Chen includes development of improved non-GMO soybean varieties for specialty food markets in addition to the commodity soybean varieties grown by most farmers.

Lanny Ashlock, ASPB director of research, said Chen is one of the leading breeders of specialty market soybeans in the South. His 'Kirksey' vegetable soybean variety is being grown by Arkansas farmers for wide-scale marketing of edamame products from the nation's first edamame processing plant in Mulberry by Arkansas Vegetable Soybean and Edamame, Inc.

Oliver said objectives of his ASPB committee include gathering data on current and potential non-GMO soybean production and marketing opportunities for Arkansas farmers and specific products and markets ripe for development.

Ron Rainey, director of the Division of Agriculture's MarketMaker project, said the MarketMaker website is a tool soybean producers can use to connect with potential buyers of specialty soybean varieties. The address is http://ar.marketmaker.uiuc.edu/.

"MarketMaker is an interactive web resource aimed at promoting the products and services of farmers, agricultural businesses and food related businesses," Rainey said.

Food science professor Navam Hettiarachchy has documented bioactive benefits of soy consumption that help prevent cancer, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer's and heart disease. In research supported by the ASPB, she and Professor Andy Proctor have developed bioactive ingredients for use is soy products ranging from cooking oil to soymilk.

A patented process developed by Proctor converts the linoleic acid in soy oil to conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to protect against cancer, heart disease and inflammatory diseases.

Specialty lines in Chen's Division of Agriculture breeding program are under evaluation for potential release in 2013 as new varieties well adapted to Arkansas growing conditions, he said. They include lines for production of edamame vegetable soybeans, tofu, soymilk and natto, which is a fermented soy product.

Other lines being considered for release in 2013 include two with high oil content and two with low linoleic acid, which contain low trans fat, and one line with low phytase, which can help reduce the excretion of phosphorus in the manure of animals fed soybean meal.