How Gene Editing Can Support Sustainable Agriculture Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology NewsHow Gene Editing Can Support Sustainable Agriculture Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology NewsHow Gene Editing Can Support Sustainable Agriculture Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
Impact Investing Forum 2023
London. May 04-05, 2023.
By Ingrid Fung
CRISPR-Cas9 was discovered in 2012 and its simplicity and precision captured the attention of investors, scientists, and popular media. CRISPR-Cas9 was expected to make genome editing economically feasible for a wide range of commercial applications. Gene editing was suddenly hailed as the key to improving our lives in many ways. This led to the formation of companies that work on creating nutritious food.
While gene editing has the potential to reduce inputs and improve nutrition, it has not been able to scale up. The lack of progress is due to two factors First, the seasonality of agriculture leads to long timelines to commercialization–making investment within this sector difficult. In order to gain market access, many startups have partnered with a small number of large corporations to strengthen their genetics and provide independent distribution channels.
Lack of competition has reduced incentives to develop and acquire new technologies, and has hampered investor interest in gene editing innovations within agriculture. A lack of market gatekeepers has also dangerously hindered technology adoption and access for farmers.
In the wake of increased societal scrutiny of corporations and organizations through an environmental, social and governance (ESG), there is a chance to deploy gene editing technologies in a way that is compatible with social license. Gene editing can play a significant role in improving our food production and building a more equitable system of food production, especially now that investors are beginning to reflect changing expectations about corporate citizenship. Finistere Ventures’ 2020 AgriFood Tech Investment Review. Gene editing technology may finally be available for adequate financing and widespread adoption in agriculture. Where are the opportunities to create a better, more sustainable world with gene editing?
Many government research organizations and nongovernmental organizations have been working to create crops that are more resilient against climate stress. As rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns have made it more difficult for crops to biotic as well as abiotic pressures, drought tolerance and resistance to intensifying diseases have been high priorities over the past decade. Companies like Tropic Biosciences have been focusing on gene editing to make crops more resilient to climate change. Climate-proofing opportunities don’t just apply to crops. Many animal genetics companies have also attempted to make heat-tolerant (slick-hair) cattle by gene editing.
Quality and nutrient densification
The emphasis on consistency, economic production of calories and scale has influenced the evolution of the North American food system. These values are one side of a tradeoff against a loss in nutrient density or quality. Gene editing is a hot topic in a society where food and culture are intertwined. Amfora (improved ingredients quality), Precision Biosciences, (more convenient consumer produce), ZeaKal (oil & protein densification) are just a few examples of startups in this area.
Have you ever wondered what happens to male chicks in a layer operation or a male calves in a dairy? These animals are of little value and are often sold or destroyed to lower costs. Genetic editing could end the need to dispose of unwanted animals. EggXYT, an Israeli company, uses gene editing to identify and remove male eggs before they are incubated. This eliminates the need to euthanize male chicks at hatcheries. Acceligen, a Gates Foundation-backed startup, is another example of a company using gene editing to improve animal welfare. It has created a portfolio of animal welfare edits like hornless cattle (removing painstaking horn removal surgeries) or castration-free porcines.
Ethical innovation for a more equitable future
Gene editing has many other benefits than the ones mentioned above. It can reduce the inputs needed to produce food, increase our production of green electricity (mostly from biodiesel), as well as provide a means to combat climate change through improved carbon capture. This is in line with the increasing social focus on ESG.
The systems and organizations that have impeded technology adoption and access over the past decade are still in place. Emily Reisman, PhD assistant professor of environment sustainability at the University of Buffalo, says that the repackaging of agricultural technology in order to mitigate pandemics (such the COVID-19 pandemic), and other urgent “disasters”, such as climate change disruptions, is often misleading. She stated that “most are limited in their ability to disrupt patterns of… hierarchy, ecological precarity and concentrated power within the food system.”
ESG trends will drive investors to invest in agriculture, and the temptation to exaggerate the impact of technologies will increase. Gene editing is one segment where there are strong precedents for technologies that can alleviate impending disasters, such as the extinctions of papaya and swine flu. The control of genetics-based technology in agriculture was limited by a few corporations in the past. This severely restricted choice and competition. This dynamic caused discontent and mistrust among consumers and producers about these companies and their practices.
Gene editing is being used to address sustainability issues. Commercialization should be done in a way that encourages competition. Also, it is important to ensure that innovations in technology and business models support equitable value, that is, values that are compatible with resilient markets as well as financial stability in agriculture.
Finistere Ventures’ investment director is Ingrid Fung.
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