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Next-gen GMO entrepreneurs target consumers, not farmers

Pairwise
Pairwise is working on modified black and red raspberries, as well as blackberries, that lack seeds and thorns. Courtesy of Pairwise

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What does the future hold for genetically modified crops? This is a huge question in food and ag. It’s not one that will be answered quickly — new crops must emerge from the lab and clear regulatory hurdles before finding success, or not, in the marketplace. But a recent funding round provides an indication of what the 2020s might look like for this sector.

To peer into this future, we have to start by looking back. The first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including herbicide-resistant soy and corn, continues to divide opinion: dominant on big U.S. farms, yet distrusted by many consumers. This dates back to the introduction of the crops in the 1990s, when critics portrayed GMOs as a risky technology with benefits that flowed only to big agricultural businesses. The entrepreneurs behind the second generation of GMOs are keen to avoid that outcome.

That desire is clear in the pitch from Pairwise, a U.S. startup that earlier this month announced a $90 million funding round. To create the company’s first product, engineers took a mustard green and removed a gene that creates the plant’s signature pungency. Critically, the gene does not affect nutrition. The result is a green that combines the mild taste of lettuce with the nutritional benefits of the plant it’s derived from. 

"We all know the healthier leafy green are things like kale and arugula, but we tend to eat romaine and iceberg," Pairwise CEO Tom Adams told me.

Pairwise’s new variety should hit stores in 2022, Adams said. Next in the company's pipeline are blackberry plants engineered to lack seeds (to please consumers) or even thorns (to please pickers). Those are slated for a mid-2020s launch. By the end of the decade, the company hopes to be selling stone-free cherries. 

During my chat with Adams, I was struck by how he repeatedly positioned his products as making fruits and vegetables more palatable to consumers, and the societal benefits that would flow from doing so. I don’t say this to question his motives — I’m highlighting it because it shows that, unlike in the past, future debates over the pros and cons of GMOs likely will center on these kinds of consumer benefits.

If so, the crops could be much less controversial. In 2019, Calyxt, another U.S. gene-editing startup, launched a soybean engineered to have less saturated fat and more oleic acid, which results in a healthier oil for frying. Did the news pass you by? Perhaps because the benefits felt real, the launch wasn’t particularly controversial. In fact, late last year Calyxt announced that it would sell all of its current crop of gene-edited soybeans to food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland

If gene-edited crops can find a smooth path to market, how might they be harnessed to make agriculture more sustainable? As a recent report noted, there are multiple possibilities, including rice varieties that emit less methane. The potential financial return on low-emission crops, however, is not as clear-cut, making this kind of research a lower priority for Pairwise, Calyxt and others.

When it comes to gene-editing for sustainability, the leaders are not U.S. startups but the multiple government-funded teams leading China’s push to use gene editing to improve everything from wheat and rice to bananas and strawberries. China’s focus on the technology is one reason — admittedly among many — why the country’s government paid $43 billion for the agtech giant Syngenta in 2017.

I thought of China’s work in this area when I read about the Biden administration’s plans to create a new climate tech agency dubbed Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate, or ARPA-C. The project builds on ARPA-E, which focuses on energy. Yet advanced agtech is just as exciting and potentially impactful. Alongside gene editing, we would benefit from artificial intelligence systems for monitoring carbon sequestration in farmland and more efficient indoor growing environments. Maybe the administration also should create ARPA-Ag.

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