Pulses and legumes, i.e., beans, peas, peanuts, chickpeas, lentils, soy beans, lupines, etc., have quite a tough time with us. Our language in itself expresses a certain disdain for these plants: An annoying pedant is colloquially called a bean counter. Bankers disparagingly refer to “small, negligible” million dollar amounts as “peanuts“. The bible uses a pottage of lentils as an example of something worthless: Esau showed his contempt for his birthright by selling it for a pottage of lentils.1 And, what is more, legumes have the bad reputation of causing severe indigestion.
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To improve the reputation of these extremely valuable foods, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses2. This is to be seen as a kind of image campaign for peas, lentils & Co. Pulses, and legumes in general, have manifold benefits and are “doubly talented”. Their high protein content makes them a valuable, healthy aliment hat can replace meat and prevent diseases like diabetes, adiposity, and heart diseases. At the same time, legumes can enrich the soil with nutrients, in particular nitrogen. Thus, legumes are at the same time aliments and fertilizers. Besides, growing legumes provides many more people with a valuable food resource than the production of meat does. These findings are not new. Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) already stated that the same area of pastureland that could indirectly feed ten people with the meat of the animals grazing on it could feed and maintain one hundred people if millet, peas, lentils, and barley were grown on it. (“Dieselbe Strecke Landes, welche als Wiese, das heißt als Viehfutter, zehn Menschen durch das Fleisch der darauf gemästeten Tier aus zweiter Hand ernährt, vermag, mit Hirse, Erbsen, Linsen und Gerste bebaut, hundert Menschen zu erhalten und zu ernähren.“ )3.
As 2016 is drawing to a close, we ask: Has this image campaign of the UN been successful? Have researchers and industry recognized the benefits of legumes and increased their activities in this area? How do companies in the food and seeds producing industry respond to this campaign? A search in scientific publications helps answer these questions. We conducted our searches in the CAplusSM database on the new STN platform for the time period from 2000 to the present. The results were limited to patent documents. Patents are a good, reliable indicator for marketing activities. Whenever new markets emerge or establish themselves, companies are trying to protect their products through patent applications. This way they protect their company know-how and innovations against being used by others, secure their exclusive rights of exploitation, and thus improve their chances to sell their innovative products or processes on the global markets.
Worldwide patent applications in the technology sector of legumes
We can detect an obvious increase immediately. The number of patent applications is significantly increasing and the trend is unbroken: Although the figures are not yet complete, we can already notice a large number of patent applications for 2016. At the time we conducted our search4, the year 2016 had not yet ended, which means that the bar diagram only shows a preliminary result. However, it also shows that this research trend already started prior to 2016. A layperson may ask what research there is still to be done on legumes. After all, they have been known as crops and aliments for thousands of years. So it is worthwhile having a closer look at the patent documents.
Casting beans before swine
Most of the patents we found are classified under CA Section Code Food and Feed Chemistry, i.e., by their nature they are innovations all in line with the aims of the UN. However, only in rare cases are they dealing with research on human food. Instead, the focus is on the composition of and recipes for fodder. Legumes, in particular peanuts, beans, and soy beans are used as additives in feeds in order to increase the production of meat. In other words: Concentrated feed is needed for ducks, sheep, chickens, pigs and piglets, crabs, carps, goats, cows, lambs, peacocks, and bamboo rats, to name just a few. Their high content in proteins and fat makes legumes an ideal additive.
Almost 59% of the patents from the Food and Feed Chemistry section were first filed in China, followed by Japan (11%) and Korea (10%). This means that Asian patents, representing almost 80% of all first applications, clearly dominate this area of research. The strikingly many fodder recipes indicate that there is a growing market for meat in Asia, in particular in China. Obviously, Chinese patent applicants assume that there is large market potential in the field of meat supply and production.
The category that ranks second in the list of patents found in our search is drugs. Usually, it’s the oil contained in the legumes that is used, rather than the legumes themselves. The effects attributed to the various legume preparations and their ingredients are remarkable. They have analeptic, antihypertensive, or anti-inflammatory properties; they relieve stress, improve digestion, and reduce the cholesterol level. When applied to a wound, they can help to stop the bleeding. Legumes are also used to ease menopausal symptoms, and they are even said to be able to improve the growth and color of hair. In this category, too, China comes first in the list of patent applicants. Many of the patent documents describe the traditional Chinese medicine. In China it is possible to have recipes from traditional plants and herbs patented. These patents are called TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) patents. It is a special feature of the CAplusSM database on STN that it contains indexed records of TCM patents from 1985 to the present.
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Industrial agriculture: a highly competitive market
The category coming third is Agriculture. Here we find, for the first time, important non-Chinese companies among the patent applicants. The content of the patent documents covers customized fertilizers, pesticides, pest control, genetically modified seeds, and methods of increasing the crop yield. The top applicants in this category are well-known agrochemical companies and seeds producers.
TOP 10 patent applicants in the category “agriculture”
The companies listed above are agro-chemical corporations, with three US companies leading the field. At present, there are many press reports about acquisitions and mergers of these companies. After long negotiations, the German Bayer group bought Monsanto in September 2016 for 59 billion dollar. In January 2016, DuPont and Dow merged into a giant new US corporation, and Chemchina group, owned by the Chinese state, would like to buy the Swiss company Syngenta. There is a lot of fluctuation in this industry sector in the Year of Legumes. Apparently, the companies expect increasing revenues and hope that mergers will facilitate their access to the markets and strengthen their market power. They complement their product portfolios and benefit from the transfer of know-how. Their final objective is to sustain their market position.
An interesting point is that MS Technologies and Stine Seed Company have specialized on soy seeds. Due to their large number of patent publications, these companies can be counted among the most innovative companies in their industry sector. They can afford intense research on just one kind of seed, and this seems to pay off well. While neither Stine Seed Company nor MS Technologies are listed on the stock exchange, they still can successfully compete with large listed corporations.
Which legume does current research focus on? A statistical analysis of the patent documents reveals that the soy bean is the clear favorite. It is in the focus of most of the patents we examined (62%). Indeed, the soy bean has outstanding properties: Both soy bean oil and soy protein have a great nutritional value. However, only a very small portion of the soy harvested worldwide is processed for food consumption. Instead, soy bean oil is used in many industrial products, including biodiesel. It is even used in fracking processes to win mineral oil and natural gas.
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The genome sequence of the soy plant has been known since 20105. Since then, it has been possible to increase the plant’s content in oil and protein by genetically modifying its seeds, depending on its intended future use. Genetic modifications can also produce pest- and herbicide-resistant soy plants.
Beans – we did not distinguish between the different cultivars (red, white, black, etc.) – come second in our patent analysis. Peas and lentils native in Europe only play a minor part in research, see diagram below.
Distribution of the various legume species in the examined patents
Our patent analysis has shown: 2016, the International Year of Pulses, has not sparked an interest in novel fields of research. The number of patent applications had already been increasing for years. In Asia, and in particular in China, innovation in the field of legumes is extensively researched on. People in these countries have known for a long time that legumes are all-purpose plants. But the large chemistry firms, too, have recognized that legumes, in particular the soy bean, have an immense market potential and will earn them much more than “just peanuts”.