When looking for an investment with a demand profile underpinned by inelastic necessity, you can’t get much more necessary than food. As long as the world’s population keeps growing — and the UN Population Division expects the world population, which was at 7.8 billion as of 2020, to swell to 10.9 billion by 2100 — the demand for food will keep growing.
Researchers and farmers have long worked to improve crop yields to meet this ever-expanding need for food. You can imagine the early farmers looking at their first undoubtedly scraggly harvest and thinking, “We can do better,” or guttural utterances to that effect. But improving crops via selective breeding is not a quick process. Breeding crops is not like breeding fruit flies, which have a 10- to 12-day lifecycle. Food crops typically require months to cover the lifecycle from seed to seed, which means it can take many years to slowly breed more resilient or better-tasting varieties. For example, it took 30 years to develop the wonderful Honeycrisp apple through small-step breeding and lots of trial and error.
Today, however, a new process is making the breeding of fruit almost as easy as the breeding of fruit flies (which need no help when it comes to breeding). Called gene editing, it is based on the CRISPR technology that has resulted in two women receiving the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was the basis for historically fast rollouts of COVID-19 vaccines, and is outlined in the Human Nature documentary produced by Dan Rather.
In the past, farmers needed to wait an entire growing season to see if the varieties they were selecting, cross pollinating or grafting would result in a product with the desired characteristics. Movements in the right direction were slow and incremental. There was a lot of guesswork involved. Now, using gene-editing techniques, they can precisely select the part of the DNA sequence that contains the desired or undesired characteristic and edit accordingly by adding or deleting from the sequence, creating a better variety in a much shorter time.
“Think of gene editing as word processing of the genome,” explains Lloyd Kunimoto, CEO of Amfora. “You can delete letters or words, insert new letters or words, and even rewrite paragraphs. Of course, these changes must all be directed toward a beneficial result, and making the right changes requires a lot of knowledge about which changes to make.”
TOWARD A BENEFICIAL RESULT
The primary advantage of gene editing is that it can quickly (in a relative sense) improve the nutritional value of food (known as nutritional density) as well as improve resilience and crop yield, resulting in better global food security, while at the same time reducing the environmental impact of feeding billions of people. The waste of a trial-and-error process is significantly reduced.
“It is a precise way to alter as little as one base pair in a gene or a single amino acid in a protein, leading to proteins that can have improved nutritional, functional, taste and flavor attributes,” says Ben Belldegrun, managing partner and co-founder of Pontifax AgTech.
And we aren’t talking about improvements that are expected at some time in the fuzzy future, decades down the line if everything goes well. Gene editing is already producing improved fruits and vegetables that are ready for prime time. For example, the first gene-edited tomato has been approved for sale in Japan. This tomato has been edited to increase the levels of a compound that occurs naturally in tomatoes, which has been shown to relax blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure.
“This may be the first of many gene-edited foods that consumers will seek out due to potential health benefits,” says Kunimoto. “At Amfora, we are using gene editing to increase the protein content of soy and other crops to make them better replacements for animal protein and grains with increased protein content that will help health-conscious people control their blood glucose levels, and address diabetes and obesity. Other gene-edited products in development at other companies include fruits and vegetables with improved flavor and increased micronutrient content, heart-healthy vegetable oils that reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol due to reductions in the levels of saturated fat and the precursors of trans-fatty acids.”
In addition, gene-editing technology is relatively simple to carry out, so that smaller companies are able to achieve their editing goals, adding a democratic breadth to the firms that are participating in gene improvements. The proliferation of smaller labs in the agricultural revolution has led to a shift in focus when it comes to who benefits from the resultant product.
Previous efforts at selective breeding typically focused on large-acre crops, especially corn and soybeans, and improving resilience to climate change, weeds and pests. The idea was to grow more in less space at a lower cost. This made sense when the time to improve varieties took years. The farmer was looking for a return on investment. However, now that researchers can more easily achieve a desired goal, the focus is shifting to the consumer, with the intent of developing crops that improve lives, not necessarily bottom lines, though greater consumer demand would undoubtedly increase agriculture returns.
“Only 10 percent of American adults eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables,” says Tom Adams, CEO and co-founder of Pairwise. “It’s been that way forever. But we’ve found people eat more when it is easier and tastier. So, rather than only applying this technology to row crops, we’re focused on changing the consumer experience by developing better fruits and vegetables. As an example, our first product is a type of mustard green with all of its nutritional benefits intact, but we’ve removed the enzyme that gives it an unpleasant [to most people] horseradish taste. Our focus is to create produce that provides real direct consumer benefits, and we think a good-tasting mustard green does. That product will hit store shelves in late 2022. We are also working on developing easier-to-eat fruits, such as seedless blackberries and pit-free cherries.”
Other consumer-focused food improvements being worked on by researchers in labs around the country include decaffeinated coffee beans, gluten-free wheat, allergen-free eggs and peanuts, and spicy tomatoes. If a specific characteristic can be tweaked or eliminated to make a food better tasting, more nutritious or simply easier to eat, it is probably the focus of a researcher somewhere right this moment.
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH GMO
You can’t talk about gene editing without raising the specter of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMO foods have been around for quite some time and have developed quite a backlash. Whether harmful or not, these GMO products have been branded “Frankenfoods,” and consumers are willing to pay a premium for products labeled “non-GMO” or “not genetically modified.”
According to the World Health Organization, “GMOs can be defined as organisms [i.e., plants, animals or microorganisms] in which the genetic material [DNA] has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” Translation: GMO technology involves inserting foreign material into a DNA chain. Thus, GMO technology is used to introduce traits from unrelated species into a plant or animal. For example, an insect-resistant GMO trait uses a modified bacterial gene to produce a protein that can safely kill insect pests, thus reducing the need for chemical pesticides. This bacterial trait, however, is not something that is found naturally in food crops. It must be added to the crop’s DNA profile, which necessarily changes the DNA.
The new generation of gene editing based on CRISPR technology is fundamentally different. No foreign or unrelated DNA material is introduced into the plant.
“Consumers don’t always understand the efficacy and safety of gene-editing technology versus GMO technologies, and don’t realize that rapid gene edits can accomplish the same protein changes that breeders achieve through long and tedious multi-year breeding cycles,” says Phil Erlanger, managing partner and co-founder Pontifax AgTech.
“The gene editing we are talking about involves something you could have created through traditional breeding,” adds Adams. “It's just a faster process. It only takes one generation instead of the typical seven or eight generations to get to what you want.”
The fact that gene editing is a plant-breeding technique that can result in exactly the same product that could otherwise be created through traditional methods and has no foreign DNA makes all the difference when it comes to government regulation.
“Our regulatory system regulates the product, not the process,” explains Adams. “So, if the product is something that you could have made through a normal breeding process, then it gets regulated the same as any other food product.”
From an investment standpoint, gene-editing technology presents a conundrum. The benefits for the $66 billion U.S. retail produce markets seem obvious. The promise of more nutritious and even disease-preventing food would appear to portend a rise in demand. Growing demand is always a good thing when vetting an investment. But food holds a special place in the minds of consumers. People don’t have a problem with gene editing in biologics or pharmaceuticals, but they do with food.
“There is a historical resistance and distrust by consumers of scientific innovation and advancement for applications in food,” says Belldegrun. “However, COVID-19 has significantly reinforced the importance of health and nutrition in food and agriculture. Consumers today are increasingly focused on produce that provides nutritious fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet. Climate change initiatives are also focusing consumers on sustainability and waste. The convergence of biotechnology and agriculture can drive a healthier and more sustainable world.”
Despite any perceived hesitancy on the part of consumers when it comes to DNA manipulation in food, the response from investors has been strong. Much of this capital inflow is likely due to the growth in life sciences itself, which has experienced historic investment inflow in the past few years. A record $70 billion of private and public capital (mostly venture capital and initial public offerings) poured into life sciences–related companies in North America in 2020, a 93 percent increase from the previous record of $36 billion received in 2018, according to Cushman & Wakefield research. Based on the $32.9 billion raised in first quarter 2021, this year could see somewhere in the area of $90 billion raised. And the interest will only continue to grow as consumers begin to better understand the new technologies, such as CRISPR.
“We are living today in the Age of Biology, where investors have been actively searching for exposure to transformative and breakthrough technologies across life sciences,” says Erlanger. “Gene-editing investments across human therapeutics have been in significant demand given the value potential for the technology, and that enthusiasm is now making its way to food, agriculture and animal health. ESG considerations are also adding to the enthusiasm.”
Companies that are working on developing improved, nutritionally dense foods have benefited not only from the growth in life sciences, but from the focus on health that has come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the focus on climate change that has resulted from the fires on the West Coast and extreme weather everywhere.
“There are some high profile gene-editing companies that have raised huge amounts of capital at very high valuations from blue-chip investors,” says Kunimoto. “Overall, investors see gene editing as a promising technology with many applications that cut across multiple industries.”
And there is no doubt that agriculture is one of those industries. Any chance someone out there is working on a good-tasting okra?
Sheila Hopkins is a freelance writer in Auburn, Ala.