Could your soybeans treat cancer?

Agriculture holds the keys to more than just feeding the world, and exciting research out of Colorado shows that the potential may be endless.

Tight Soybean.jpg
Researchers in Colorado are using soybeans to make hard-to-obtain natural compounds.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek file photo

Here in North Dakota, we're in the midst of an ag-related building boom .

Two soybean crush plants are in the works with a third announced. Since the state is home to several of the top counties in the U.S. for soybean acreage, it makes sense to do something here with the crop rather than continue to ship them off. The developments should mean a better local market for farmers and more access to feed (soybean meal) for livestock producers.

Researchers and soybean promoters — including soybean checkoff groups — have long been exploring new uses for soybeans. For instance, I once learned that the windshield wiper fluid line in a car I used to drive were made of a soy-based rubber. (Unfortunately, I learned that when a mouse made its way into the garage and chewed through the line and a technician explained that it's a tasty rubber for rodents. But having a good supply of barn cats around seems to have solved that problem.) The same holds true for other crops and animal byproducts — not all ag production ends up on dinner plates, and the possibilities are growing.

Agriculture holds the keys to more than just feeding the world, and exciting research out of Colorado shows that the potential may be endless.

An article earlier this month from the University of Colorado Boulder explained how researchers — including one farm kid turned microbiologist — are exploring using soybeans to produce hard-to-obtain natural compounds that could be used in a bunch of important things — like cancer treatments, vaccines, infant formulas and more.


They're working on bioengineering soybean plants to produce the natural oil squalene, which is used in vaccines and in cosmetics but is sourced from the livers of sharks. They're also trying to synthetically create taxol or paclitaxel — a widely used chemotherapy drug — that right now comes from the bark of yew trees that could become endangered. And soon, the company the researchers have formed plans to begin scaling production on its first product, a bioengineered milk protein critical for infant development.

Read more of Jenny Schlecht's "The Sorting Pen"

How cool is that? Those humble beans could actually save lives and help the environment.

The sky is the limit. But to get anywhere near the potential that might lie within soybeans or other crops, agriculture research must continue to be a priority.

As Agweek news editor Michael Johnson and I talked to some politicians in the region about the upcoming farm bill , we heard again and again that agriculture research must be funded in the massive legislation . That can feel like a push that needs to come from farm state legislators. But as we see in the work in Colorado, agriculture research very much is not just an agronomic effort. It's an effort to create new products and use agricultural production in new ways to improve the lives of everyone.

We all need to be on the side of improving funding for agriculture research, not just in the farm bill but also on the state level and through checkoff organizations. It might mean better production for crops and livestock and better markets through new products. It also might mean improvements we haven't even thought of yet.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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