How Plant Sciences Will Feed 10 Billion People By 2050
Regular readers know that we don’t just publish articles, but foster a conversation about emerging technologies and how they will improve the world (and our investment portfolio). One of our ongoing themes – aside from Elon Musk’s hair – is how this little green and blue ball we inhabit can continue to sustain life as we know it. There isn’t one silver bullet for curbing greenhouse gases and weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels like oil. Similarly, the path forward to feed a population projected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050 will require numerous solutions, from producing lab-grown food and soylents to reducing food waste and improving livestock health. A key part of the strategy also revolves around plant sciences – finding ways to increase agricultural yields while climate proofing our crops against the extreme changes that scientists forecast are headed our way.
A Failing Revolution
The so-called Green Revolution of the 20th century applied a wide range of new technologies and techniques – including crop breeding, chemical fertilizers, and machinery – to dramatically boost agricultural yields, leading to a population boom. But the party is over. It turns out that many of the synthetic fertilizers aren’t so good for long-term soil (or human) health. In fact, scientists have predicted that we have about 60 years left before we completely burn out the planet’s topsoil. While indoor farming may help alleviate some of the burden, letting the planet turn into a giant dust bowl and sticking our heads into the resulting sand maybe isn’t the best strategy.
Plant Sciences Revolution Recap
We’ve come across a number of agriculture technology, or agtech, companies that are working within the plants sciences field to engineer better crops that don’t need chemicals and all that other crap. We’ve already profiled some of these companies, like San Diego-based Cibus that uses a proprietary gene-editing technique to create non-genetically modified seeds with desirable traits like heightened disease resistance. (The company had been set to go public earlier this year but reportedly withdrew its plans last month.) Another company we covered that is working on similar non-GMO plant breeding technology is Israeli-based Kaiima, which says it can increase crop yields by about 10%. A third, Calyxt (CLXT), had an IPO in 2017 to continue development of its gene-editing technology called TALEN that is attempting to improve both the quality and yield of different crops. And a Cambridge, Massachusetts startup called Inari Agriculture uses various gene-editing tools to develop seeds customized for the local growing conditions.
A different approach to increasing yield is to enhance the microbes that live in a symbiotic relationship with plants. That’s the strategy behind both Pivot Bio and Indigo Ag, probably the biggest-fund agtech startup on the planet. AgBiome has developed a gene-sequencing platform to identify the best microbe for different jobs, recently commercializing a microbial-based fungicide. We also profiled Inocucor Technologies in the same article for its work to use microbes for enhancing plant growth. Or we could just let the machines do all the thinking, like Benson Hill Biosystems, which has now raised nearly $100 million for its AI platform that identifies desirable genetic traits in crops.
Below, we bring you a new crop of plant sciences startups working on similar solutions. Most of them were culled from a market map published last year by Finistere Ventures that we also used in our article on precision agriculture. We’ve skipped those previously covered, as well as a couple that are focused on biofuels. We also added a couple of the most funded agtech startups from 2018, according to AgFunder News, that applied to our plant sciences theme to round out the article.
Manipulating the Microbiome
Founded in 2017, Boston-based Joyn Bio is a joint venture between pharmaceutical giant Bayer (BAYN:GR) and synthetic biology startup Ginkgo Bioworks, which operates high-tech labs it calls foundries where it automates the design and development of microorganisms for everything from flavors to food. It recently created another company called Motif to develop microbes that can produce exotic proteins like camel’s milk. Joyn Bio’s first task – buoyed by $100 million from the partners and a third party – is a big one: Engineer soil microbes that help crops “fix” their own nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential for plants to grow, and some crops like soybeans can obtain the nitrogen they need from the bacteria that live in the soil. That’s not the case for major crops like corn, wheat, and rice because, apparently, their soil microbiome is lame, so farmers use chemical fertilizers that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution like algal blooms.
The big brains at Joyn Bio want to tweak the soil microbiome for these staple crops so that they, too, can provide nitrogen to the plants. Joyn Bio estimates its microbes will be able to reduce fertilizer use by as much as 35%.
Biological Pest Control
It’s not just microbial bugs that can help produce more sustainable crops. Bug-sized bugs can also be put to work to control pests that would normally require spraying toxic pesticides on plants. A UK company called Bioline AgroSciences – with a long history of being acquired and sold since it was founded in 1979, including connections to both Novartis and Syngenta, before becoming a subsidiary of a French ag firm called InVivo – got about $55.5 million in funding last year. It produces a range of products that basically involves unleashing an army of predatory bugs to devour an army of pesky bugs. One of our favorites involves a product that contains three different “mummies” of aphid parasites that emerge from their hibernation “in transit ready for action.” Here’s a sampling of some of the bad-ass bugs ready to do battle:
The company recently created a joint-venture to spread its products to Spain.
A Fertilizer for Microbes
Founded in 2012, Sound Agriculture (formerly known as Asilomar Bio) out of the San Francisco area has raised $15.3 million, with ambitions to create a range of products to enhance crop yield and nutrition. Its first product is called Source, a type of fertilizer spray that is applied to the plant itself rather than the soil. Source then activates beneficial microbes to unlock existing nitrogen and phosphorus without the need for conventional chemical fertilizers.
The company says Source increases yield by an average of 9.6 bushels of corn per acre.
CRISPR for Crops
Founded in 2018, Pairwise Plants is a homegrown startup from former private ag giant Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) that is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. It raised a $25 million Series A in March 2018, but also has another $100 million promised from Monsanto for intellectual property development, so let’s call total funding $125 million. The company was founded by many of the same gene-editing masterminds behind Editas Medicine (EDIT), so it certainly has the expertise to pull off a few tricks, like using CRISPR gene-editing techniques to make strawberries that taste sweeter and with a longer shelf life.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Founded way back in 2006, Rootility is a startup from the Startup Nation of Israel. It has pulled together $40 million in funding, with a $10 million Series C in May 2018 being the most recent round. As you might guess from the name, the company is focused on beefing up the roots of plants to boost yield and increase tolerance to changing climate conditions. It uses old-fashioned breeding techniques combined with “sophisticated simulation” to screen crops at scale and speed, according to AgFunder News.
In an ongoing pilot project with tomatoes in California’s central valley, Rootility was able to produce 80 to 100 tons of tomatoes per acre versus the current limit of about 50 tons per acre.
Founded in 2012 from academic work at Washington State University (WSU), Phytelligence has raised about $20 million. The company has developed a micropropagation technique for a variety of fruits and nuts including apples, cherries, and peaches that helps generate rootstock as much as five times faster using what AgFunder News called “a non-soil, nutrient-dense growing medium.” Phytelligence also genetically certifies its rootstocks are 100% true to the variety and virus free. The company has been involved in marketing a new apple variety, Cosmic Apple, that the New York Times touts will be the apple of the future.
However, the company has experienced its own growing pains, as it’s embroiled in a lawsuit over Cosmic Apple with WSU, and it recently underwent a major leadership shakeup. We guess they had to get rid of some bad apples.
A new generation of plant sciences startups are working to improve both crop yields and food quality without using GMOs or chemicals. The latest technologies leverage cleaner gene-editing techniques like CRISPR for developing desirable traits, AI for automating design and development of new plant microbes, and re-inventing traditional processes like plant breeding and pest management. AgriFood tech startups raised nearly $17 billion last year, and there’s no reason to see that slowing down much as companies race to create a more sustainable agricultural system. Major ag players like Monsanto and now Bayer have shown their willingness to invest in the plant sciences outside of their own expertise. Meanwhile, Indigo Ag remains one of the most intriguing companies in the category, with a valuation of at least $3 billion making it the world’s biggest agtech startup. As demonstrated by the recent Beyond Burger IPO, the world is hungry for investments that also pay off for the planet.
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