By Ingrid Fung

When the CRISPR-Cas9 system was discovered in 2012, its precision and relative simplicity of use captured the imaginations of popular media, investors, and scientists alike. It was expected that CRISPR-Cas9 would make genome editing economically viable for a vast array of commercial applications. Suddenly, gene editing was heralded as the gateway to improving our lives in innumerable ways—spurring the formation of companies focused on creating more nutritious food sustainably.

In the interceding years, while gene editing has had the potential to reduce inputs, improve nutrition, and “climate proof” our food supply, little has materialized in the way of technologies adopted at scale. 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. Second, strong consolidation around genetics for major industry players and the lack of substantial independent distribution channels have forced many startups to try to partner with an increasingly small pool of large corporates to gain market access.

The lack of competition has decreased incentives to acquire and develop new technologies and has wreaked havoc on investor interest in gene editing innovation within agriculture. What’s more, having very few gatekeepers to the market has dangerously hampered technology adoption and access for farmers.

Thankfully, in the wake of increasing societal focus on evaluating corporations and organizations with an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) lens, an opportunity exists to deploy gene editing technologies in a manner that aligns with social license. Gene editing has a large role to play in improving the way we produce our food, as well as in building a more equitable food system, particularly now that investments are starting to reflect the shifting expectations of corporate citizenship. (See Finistere Ventures’ 2020 AgriFood Tech Investment Review.) We may finally see adequate financing and adoption of gene editing technologies in agriculture So, where are the opportunities to build a better, more sustainable world using gene editing?

Climate proofing

Creating crops that are more resilient to climate stress has been an ongoing endeavor of many government research organizations and non-governmental organizations. Drought tolerance and resistance to intensifying disease has been a high priority over the last decade as rising temperatures and irregular weather patterns increasingly expose crops to biotic and abiotic pressures. Using gene editing to create crops resilient to climate change has been the focus of companies like Tropic Biosciences. However, climate-proofing opportunities aren’t limited to just crops. Several animal genetics companies have also sought to create heat-tolerant (slick hair) cattle using gene editing as well.

Nutrient densification and quality

The evolution of the North American food system reflects the emphasis that has been placed on scale, the economic production of calories, and consistency. These values have been one side of a trade-off opposite a loss of nutrient density and quality. In a society where food, health, and culture are increasingly intertwined, the use of gene editing to create more nutrient-dense, flavorful food is a hot topic. Examples of startups working in this space include Amfora (improved ingredient quality), Precision Biosciences (more convenient consumer produce), and ZeaKal (oil and protein densification).

Animal welfare

Have you ever thought about what happens to male chicks in a layer operation, or a male calf in a dairy? These animals have very little value and are sold (or destroyed) to reduce costs. Gene editing could put an end to the disposal of unwanted animals. For instance, Israeli company EggXYT is using gene editing to enable the identification and removal of male eggs before incubation, eliminating the need to euthanize male chicks at hatcheries. Other examples of companies using gene editing to improve animal welfare include Acceligen, a Gates Foundation–backed startup that is creating a portfolio of animal welfare–focused edits such as hornless cattle (removing the need for painful horn removal surgeries) and castration-free swine.

Ethical innovation for an equitable future

Beyond the previously mentioned opportunities, gene editing also has the potential to reduce the inputs required to produce food, improve our production of green energy (mostly from biodiesel), and provide a means to fight climate change through improved carbon capture. This aligns well with the growing societal focus on ESG.

However, the systems and organizations that have limited technology adoption and access in the last decade are still very much in place. According to Emily Reisman, PhD, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo, the repackaging and alignment of agricultural technology as a means of mitigating pandemics (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) and other urgent “disasters” (such as climate change disruptions) is often misleading. In her words, “Most are limited in their capacity to disrupt patterns of … hierarchy, ecological precarity, and concentrated power in the food system.”

As investors become increasingly interested in investing in agriculture due to ESG trends, the temptation to oversell the impact of technologies will grow with it. Gene editing is one of the rare segments where there are solid precedents for technologies alleviating impending disasters—like the extinction of papaya. In the past, genetics-based technologies in agriculture were controlled by a handful of corporations, dramatically limiting choice and competition. This dynamic created discontent and mistrust of these companies and their practices by consumers and producers alike.

As gene editing is deployed to tackle sustainability challenges, care should be taken to ensure that commercialization proceeds in a way that promotes competition. Care should also be taken to ensure that innovations in technologies and business models support equitable values, that is, values that are consistent with resilient markets and financial stability in farming.

 

Ingrid Fung is an investment director at Finistere Ventures.