Even as agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) becomes more refined, it becomes more powerful. For example, relatively crude techniques such as transgenics are being supplanted by genome editing. Where transgenics blasts one organism’s genes into another organism’s genome, genome editing proceeds more delicately, altering a cell’s DNA directly. Genome editing can even be used to patiently reconfigure an organism’s metabolic networks, systematically improving crop quality while boosting yields.
Agbiotech’s movement toward genome editing cannot happen too quickly. According to a United Nations report issued in 2019, the world’s population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050. Moreover, the growing population will require an increase in farm production of 70% overall—and up to 100% in developing countries. This increase will have to occur despite adverse circumstances, which include challenges due to climate change, such as increasingly constrained and unreliable water resources.
To present to our readers a timely take on agbiotech, GEN spoke with two experts who represent Yield10 Bioscience, an agricultural bioscience company that is working to improve crop yields and enhance sustainable global food security. The scientists are Oliver P. Peoples, PhD, the company’s CEO, and Kristi Snell, PhD, the company’s CSO.
GEN: What is the current state of the agbiotech sector? What makes the agbiotech sector so promising?
Peoples: The agbiotech sector is poised for tremendous growth as a result of multiple drivers. Probably first and foremost, we need to increase the sustainable production of food and feed to meet population growth and increased demand for protein. We also have global warming resulting in increased disease and pest pressure and the increasingly variable and unpredictable weather patterns impacting food production.
Consumers are also educating themselves on the science, sustainability, and safety of agbiotech advancements like genome engineering in crops. In the developed world, consumers are particularly interested in making healthier and more sustainable purchases. As a result, they are becoming more informed about the potential benefits of agbiotech and what these advancements have to offer to themselves and the global community.
Another key piece that’s fallen into place is that we’re seeing more countries across the globe soften their stance on biotech crops as additional studies and pressing global challenges, including the looming climate change issue, come to light.
Snell: The changing regulatory environment opens the door for rapid growth. In the United States, for example, select categories of genetically modified plants developed using genome editing technology, such as CRISPR, are not subject to regulation, for example, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The rationale is that CRISPR-modified plants and the like could have been developed through conventional breeding techniques. The shifting regulatory environment, evidence of increasing consumer acceptance around genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and use of CRISPR to create better crops, coupled with climate concerns, are setting the stage for an upward agbiotech trajectory.
GEN: What are some key technologies driving the agbiotech market?
Snell: The most prominent technology driving innovation and discovery in the agbiotech market, which most people now are familiar with, is CRISPR. CRISPR is the simplest and quickest way to modify a crop’s existing DNA without introducing foreign DNA, which addresses a significant barrier to consumer adoption. Researchers can simply remove, add, or alter sections of the DNA sequence to create desirable traits, making it possible to eliminate the years needed to create the same results through traditional plant breeding.
Peoples: CRISPR is already making headway in the medical community due to its ability to change, specifically and precisely, any gene target in any genome. Plant developers are using this tool to develop new crop varieties with compositional profiles having healthier nutritional qualities with strong appeal to the consumer. The key with new tools, including CRISPR, is identifying the target gene or combination of genes in the crop to modify to achieve that increased performance or quality. Here, advanced modeling tools incorporating artificial intelligence, such as Yield10’s GRAIN platform, will become increasingly important for capturing value from the big data sets generated from crop bioinformatics studies over the last two decades and identifying high-priority gene targets for investigation.
GEN: Where is agbiotech R&D having the greatest impact?
Peoples: For the major row crops, we’ll likely see technologies intended to further improve crop resiliency, productivity, and sustainability. I expect we will also see specialization of some commodity crops to develop varieties for use on smaller acreages with dedicated, tightly controlled value chains targeted to specific consumer preferences and markets.
Modifications to fruits and vegetables to improve nutrition and shelf stability have already begun where the prohibitive costs of GMO regulations previously created an economic barrier for agbiotech. There will be accelerated development of elite varieties of new cash cover crops that increase farm revenue and the sustainability of food and feed production—it is here that CRISPR has the potential to replace decades of breeding. Finally, we also believe there will be new crop varieties developed for the production of sustainable products for aquaculture and industrial use.
Snell: Currently, there are a number of companies that are working on genome edited crops. For example, Calyxt and Corteva Agriscience are working on the genome editing of soybean and corn, respectively, to produce improved compositional and agronomic traits. Our team at Yield10 is working on increasing the oil content of oilseeds through CRISPR genome editing.
Other work with more traditional genetic engineering approaches occurring at Yield10 and other companies in the space targets increasing the yield of staple crops such as corn, canola, potato, and soybean. Additionally, we’re seeing more companies, including Yield10, focusing on improving crop nutrition, resiliency, and composition, as well as on the production of additional byproducts.
GEN: What kinds of new agbiotech products can we expect to see over the next 10 years or so?
Snell: Over the next 10 years, we should see some unique and sustainable plant-based alternative products emerge as a direct result of advancements in agbiotech. For example, biodegradable plastics could become more plentiful and cost-effective as Camelina plants are reprogrammed to produce a biodegradable material called polyhydroxyalkanoates, better known as PHAs, as a third seed product.
At Yield10, we’re currently field testing our novel traits C3014 and C3015 to produce PHA biomaterial as a third seed product in addition to the oil and protein meal produced in the seed. This approach could lead to using the Camelina plant as a production platform for a biomaterial that could have a range of uses while providing farmers with a new crop to cultivate in North America.
Peoples: In addition to apples and other fruits and vegetables with improved shelf life and nutritional properties developed using CRISPR, we also see GMO tools as an essential part of improving the long-term sustainability of agriculture.
Although we and others are using CRISPR to increase the yield and oil content of the oilseed Camelina for use as a cash cover crop, new GMO varieties are being developed to produce new seed products. These include the vegan fish oil with high levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids for salmon farming being developed at the Rothamsted Research Institute in the United Kingdom and the natural PHA biomaterials being developed by Yield10.
Now, I know we still have lot of work ahead of us to develop commercial PHA Camelina varieties, but it’s only a matter of time before we can farm Camelina to produce natural PHA resin alternatives for plastic packaging materials and straws, knives, forks, and spoons. These can then be combined with food waste for biogas energy recovery, creating a closed-loop zero-waste system.
GEN: How might agbiotech help us address climate change?
Peoples: There are a few key areas in which genome editing can help address climate change: increasing crop resiliency so that crops are more tolerant of highly variable climatic conditions; increasing the use of cover crops to reduce nutrient and soil runoff; enhancing soil carbon sequestration; and increasing yield potential.
Crops can be developed that capture more carbon dioxide and transform it into sugars that fuel plant and seed and root growth. Researchers are finding new traits that are capable of increasing carbon capture and conversion within the crop, creating “super plants” that remove more carbon dioxide from the environment. If we can direct more of this fixed carbon into root material without impairing grain harvest, then we would be “fixing” more carbon in the soil.
Snell: Genetic engineering is also helping to create sustainable and biodegradable plastic alternatives through the generation of natural PHA biomaterials in oilseeds. This class of biomaterials mimics the properties of plastic without the environmental impact of conventional plastics due to its ability to disintegrate in as little as two months,
depending on its thickness.
GEN: For agbiotech to reach its full potential, what challenges must be overcome?
Peoples: Acceptance is the most pressing challenge when it comes to biotech and its use within agriculture. Unfortunately, years of anti-GMO rhetoric and the use of anti-GMO labeling as a negative marketing tool have created concern and confusion at the consumer level.
These approaches for the most part ignore over 30 years of safety on a global scale as well as the food security and sustainability impacts enabled by GMO crops. These impacts include reducing the use of chemical pesticides and the expansion of no-till agriculture. Protecting our precious land and water resources will require accelerated crop development using the broad suite of genetic engineering tools to enable more sustainable farm practices while meeting increased demand for food.
Policies are changing, but more progress needs to be made. We need to continue the education of consumers on the safety, health, and sustainability benefits of agbiotech. Governments worldwide then need to streamline the regulatory processes for all crops developed using genetic engineering based on the scientific evidence, not fear-based marketing or protectionism. Developing scalable sustainable food production without the use of all the genetic engineering tools available including GMO would be like trying to address a global pandemic without the promise of vaccines.
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