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Why Bayer and the Gates Foundation are using CRISPR to reduce food's climate impact

Gene editing technology can help create the next generation of climate-resistant crops.

Mustard greens at a market.

Mustard greens at a market. Credit: Shutterstock/Lanywati

CRISPR gene editing technology is beginning to deliver on a promise to quickly create crops with traits that withstand a changing climate, resist aggressive pests and reinvigorate healthy soils, according to experts at the South by Southwest event in Austin earlier this month.

Companies exploring CRISPR to make climate-friendly foods and medicines are enjoying some tailwinds:

At the same time, startups and researchers are taking on investment partnerships with larger organizations to commercialize CRISPR innovations. Bayer has a project with Pairwise to create a corn crop that is more resilient to environmental factors. In 2011, The Gates Foundation gave a $10.3 million grant to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and has re-invested more than $16 million to the organization in 2023 to create climate resistant rice varieties.

CRISPR and climate change

The past 200 years of industrialized agriculture have increased yields and eased shipping with large, durable produce — often to the detriment of the soil, the planet and taste.

"We think with gene editing you won’t have to make that choice," said Tom Adams, CEO of Pairwise. The startup is producing the first CRISPR consumer product by editing out the wasabi-like spiciness of a mustard green to make it more palatable to eaters. 

Pairwise sold the green at a New York grocer earlier this year and is seeking to partner with companies to sell to consumers. The company’s main focus is developing business-to-business markets by selling ingredient crops or seeds to big agricultural companies or seed banks.

What CRISPR is

Traditionally, farmers mated or cross-pollinated organisms to augment their desired characteristics. It could take decades to cultivate a plant to the desired enhancement for human consumption.

In the 1970s, scientists began genetically modifying organisms (GMOs) by cultivating foreign DNA in a bacteria or virus and then inducing those cells to add their modified DNA into a plant or animal. The modified DNA would typically offer resistance to pests or diseases.

CRISPR opens up new possibilities to modify crops by knocking out or enhancing genes that are already present. "It’s more precise, and more accurate and more intuitive than breeding," said Elena Del Pup, a plant genetics researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. "[It] allows us to make very specific edits."

"The hope and the promise of [CRISPR] is that by making a few simple edits, you confer a highly valuable disease resistance trait onto a crop," said Vipula Shukla, senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

How GMOs are regulated

If European Union states eventually accept the recent parliamentary vote, they would exempt plants with CRISPR edits from GMO labeling requirements.

The EU has been notoriously strict on GMOs, requiring labeling under consumer "right to know" rules since 1997. Every GMO product must receive EU authorization and a risk assessment.

In the United States, the FDA began requiring clear labeling on consumer products containing GMOs in 2022. In 2018, the USDA decided that CRISPR-edited foods do not need to be regulated or labeled as genetically edited because these modifications could have been done with traditional breeding alone.

Experts think the new EU vote that exempts CRISPR from these rules indicates a willingness to embrace new tools to address the challenges of providing enough food for a growing population facing climate change.

Here’s how advocates foresee CRISPR helping the food system become more resilient to climate change.

1. Increasing yield and efficiency 

In agriculture, maximizing yield remains a top priority. Crops that produce more food and use less fertilizer, water and pesticides also decrease embedded emissions.

Pairwise, in collaboration with Bayer, is editing corn that yields more kernels per ear. Another edited corn grows to 6 feet rather than the conventional 9 feet tall. 

"The advantage is that it's much sturdier," said Adams. "So if there's a big wind it doesn't get blown over." It also makes applying insecticides, fungicides and herbicides easier.

To engineer the next generation of climate-efficient plants, scientists need to find specific genes in them, such as for controlling water usage or nitrogen fixation.

"One of the biggest limitations [for CRISPR] is our relatively limited knowledge of the biology of the organisms that we’re trying to edit," Shukla said. "You can't apply CRISPR to a gene if you don't know what the gene does."

2. Resilience to pests and diseases 

Farmers and researchers are field-testing a strain of CRISPR-edited rice designed to resist bacterial blights, which can kill 75 percent of a crop. Rice blight is a particular problem in India and Africa.

Since 2011, The Gates Foundation has been funding field trials of CRISPR rice in India. It has engaged in similar field tests of a virus-resistant corn in Mexico since 2015. "The Gates Foundation wants to come in at a point where there's a testable hypothesis," Shukla said. "We're focusing on developing and delivering these innovations to people."

The foundation looks for preliminary laboratory results or small scale, proven field testing. It then funds a larger scale pilot in real-world conditions in developing countries.

3. Adapting to changing climates 

"I don't personally have a lot of faith that we're going to reverse climate change," Adams said. "So, I think we probably should be investing in adapting to it."

Farmers need plants that can survive temperature extremes, including higher nighttime temperatures, as well as erratic rainfall patterns. CRISPR can help native plants adapt to their changing environment by enhancing their genes.

"One of the consequences of climate change is having to move crops into places they haven’t been before because it's warmer or wetter or drier," Shukla said. "And crops are not adapted to those pests [in the new locations]. We have the ability with gene editing to confer traits that make those crops more tolerant to pests and diseases that they haven't experienced before."

The Gates Foundation is looking at genes for heat tolerance as its next target for research and investment, according to Shukla.

4. Increasing biodiversity

CRISPR technology may also diversify the genetic composition of current crops and domesticate new crops. That could help address the damage done by industrial, monoculture farming practices, in which a single crop species dominates a field or farm, depleting the soil of its nutrients.

"Wild relatives of plants contain traits that can be super-valuable for agriculture," Shukla said. "But we haven't had a way through crossing or other methods to bring those traits into the agricultural system."

If Pairwise’s mild mustard green becomes a hit, it might offer an incentive for farmers to plant a new leafy green alongside their kale, lettuce and spinach — adding to biodiversity.

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