Biotech Food as a Necessity in a Warming Planet

Climate change is here, folks, and I'm not saying so because it's hot outside. This is a big worry, or at least it should be.

But big problems create big business opportunities: A California biotech company called Arcadia Biosciences has set out to help farmers do their part to slow down the process of global warming and adapt to a resource-constrained world -- by developing crop varieties that require less water, tolerate salty conditions and use less nitrogen fertilizer.

This photo shows two varieties of rice. On the left is rice engineered for nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) by Arcadia, on the right conventional rice. In laboratory tests, using typical applications of nitrogen fertilizer, the NUE rice, as it's known, is substantially more productive.

When you can grow more food using the same inputs of land, water and fertilizer, everyone -- farmers, consumers, hungry people and anyone who cares about CO2 concentrations in the earth's atmosphere -- is better off.

So, at least, says Eric Rey, the founder and CEO of Arcadia. Others will disagree because Arcadia deploys genetic-engineering technology that some (many?) environmentalists oppose. But when we met last week in Washington, Eric told me that he considers himself an environmentalists and, in fact, it was his concern about disappearing species, pollution and climate issues that led him to start the company back in 2002.

The company's purpose, Eric said, is to "use the the tools of plant biotechnology, and point them at saving the environment." When developing a new crop variety, he said, "if we can't put our fingers on an environmental benefit or a human health benefit, we won't do it."

"Agriculture has a huge environmental footprint," he went on. "We have to optimize food production and minimize the impact of that production on the environment. I don't think this is the only way to do it, but it's one way and it's valid and it's safe."

Eric ReyArcadia got its start when Eric, who is 55 and had worked at Calgene Oils (creator of the infamous Flavr Savr tomato) met a free-thinking, left-leaning billionaire named John Sperling, who made a fortune in the for-profit education business and since then has used his money to to promote animal cloning, human life extension, legalized marijuana, saltwater agriculture and shrimp farming in Eritrea.

They got to talking about how genetically-engineered crops could benefit the environment, and Sperling became (and remains) a majority shareholder of privately-held Arcadia.

Since then, the company has made considerable progress in the slow-moving world of inventing, developing, testing and gaining regulatory approval for genetically engineered crops. It has about 85 employees, most of them researchers based in Davis, Calif. (where Eric earned a degree in plant science at the state university), and it has a crop in the field -- a plant known as GLA safflower oil, whose seeds contain oil with as much as 40 percent gamma linolenic acid that is used in supplements and nutraceutical foods. "It's basically a broad-purpose anti-inflammatory," Eric said.