You might be familiar with genetically modified organism (GMO) foods and the controversy surrounding them. However, you may not have heard about gene editing in agriculture. For the $15 billion biotechnology seed industry, gene editing in agriculture is making huge waves. Several start-ups in the industry are making bold moves, and major changes are coming. These companies are tackling some of the biggest challenges in the food industry ranging from obesity epidemics to food shortages. You might be amazed at what the future might hold when it comes to the types of foods available.
GMO Versus Gene Editing in Agriculture – Major Differences
The difference between GMO and gene editing in agriculture is quite substantial. Both gene editing and GMO methods enhance foods through DNA changes, but that’s where the similarities end. To make GMO food, DNA from another type of plant is transferred to another one. Gene editing in agriculture, on the other hand, is “non-transgenic.” Gene editing targets an area of the plant’s DNA that is known to cause problems and makes it inactive.
Why is this important? There are several reasons why. First, gene editing in agriculture is much more precise in action without merging the DNA of two organisms. Second, it is much faster in getting results. GMO foods take an average of 12 years to develop while gene editing only averages five years. The third and the biggest reason, perhaps, involves the USDA. At present, the USDA has determined that gene editing in agriculture does not need regulating. All of these offer major advantages over GMO food development.
Bold Opportunity – Bold Moves
Being able to develop better foods faster without mixing genes from different organisms introduced new opportunities for businesses. Likewise, gene editing in agriculture in much less expensive than GMO methods. This provided the real stimulus for new competition.
A GMO food costs as much as $150 million to develop. However, gene editing in agriculture can cost up to 90 percent less than GMO techniques. The reduced cost combined with a faster time to market is great for start-up businesses. As a result, several new gene editing businesses are challenging the “big boys” in the industry.
Companies like Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta AG have to consider new approaches as a result.
New Competition – The Gene Editing in Agricultural Landscape Today
GMO food companies try to preserve foods longer or make them resistant to herbicides and pesticides. However, gene editing in agriculture has a much broader focus on making our foods better. Imagine wheat that has only small amounts of gluten. How about apples that don’t brown? It plans to introduce better plants faster. At the same time, its mission is to provide healthier foods in the process.
- Calyxt Inc. – Founded by a genetics professor, this start-up began eight years ago. Today, it boasts only of 45 employees, but the company’s potential is significant. Its current gene editing product is a soybean oil that is much healthier. Farmers working with Calyxt just planted 17,000 acres of the gene-edited plant making it the first one to market commercially.
- Cibus – The start-up formed in 2001 is based in San Diego, California. In addition to acquiring $70 million in capital investments, the company has its own proprietary gene editing system. Its Rapid Trait Development System has already produced a canola oil plant resistant to specific herbicides. Cibus is also working on enhanced rice, flax and potato crops as well.
- Benson Hill Biosystems – Based in North Carolina, this start-up uses gene editing technologies alongside big data to make agricultural advances. Its goal is to make plants more productive, foods more sustainable, and crops more tolerant. Their system explores the untapped genetic diversity of plants creating better foods along the way. The company has already received over $35 million in capital investments so far.
- Pairwise Plants – Also based in North Carolina, this new startup has received attention from some of the agricultural giants in the industry. Pairwise Plants has received $125 million in investments from Monsanto to develop new superfoods. The company is currently working with corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola crops. Likewise, it uses CRISPR, a specific gene editing technique to create enhanced food diversity.
Targeting Healthier and More Sustainable Foods through Genetic Diversity
Statistically, about 99 percent of the calories consumed globally come from 1 percent of the genetic diversity potential in foods. Gene editing in agriculture seeks to change this.
The realization of more sustainable and productive crops is possible by altering specific points on plants’ genes. Likewise, this process also creates healthier foods without mixing DNA from different organisms. Many innovative businesses see it in agriculture as a significant breakthrough in addressing global food challenges. With new start-ups pushing the envelope in this regard, bold changes are likely to happen in the near future.