by Rod Nickel
There is a proliferation of startup companies with
new visions of advanced GMO technology to modify the
human food supply.
Technocrats believe that every problem facing man
requires a scientific solution.
Where there is no obvious problem, one will be
created and then solved.
In this case, the long-term effect of modifying the
food chain is totally unknowable.
INSIGHT-Gene-editing startups ignite the next 'Frankenfood' fight
In a suburban Minneapolis
laboratory, a tiny company that has never turned a profit is poised
to beat the world's biggest agriculture firms to market with the
next potential breakthrough in genetic engineering - a crop with
Calyxt Inc, an eight-year-old firm
co-founded by a genetics professor, altered the genes of a soybean
plant to produce healthier oil using the cutting-edge editing
technique rather than conventional genetic modification.
Seventy-eight farmers planted those soybeans this spring across
17,000 acres in South Dakota and Minnesota, a crop expected to be
the first gene-edited crop to sell commercially, beating out Fortune
Seed development giants such as,
genetically modified crop
technology that emerged in the 1990s.
But they face a wider
field of competition from start-ups and other smaller competitors
because gene-edited crops have drastically lower development costs
and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided
not to regulate them...
Relatively unknown firms including,
...are already advancing
their own gene-edited projects in a race against Big Ag for
dominance of the potentially transformational technology.
"It's a very exciting
time for such a young company," said Calyxt CEO Federico Tripodi,
who oversees 45 people.
"The fact a company
so small and nimble can accomplish those things has picked up
interest in the industry."
Gene-editing technology involves
targeting specific genes in a single organism and disrupting those
linked to undesirable characteristics or altering them to make a
modification, by contrast, involves transferring a gene from one
kind of organism to another, a process that still does not have full
Gene-editing could mean bigger harvests of crops with a wide array
of desirable traits:
tomatoes, low-gluten wheat, apples that don't turn brown,
drought-resistant soybeans or potatoes better suited for cold
The advances could also
double the $15 billion global biotechnology seed market within a
decade, said analyst Nick Anderson of investment
The USDA has fielded 23 inquiries about whether gene-edited crops
need regulation and decided that none meet its criteria for
That saves their
developers years of time and untold amounts of money compared to
traditional genetically modified crops. Of those 23 organisms, just
three were being developed by major agriculture firms.
The newly competitive landscape could foster more partnerships and
licensing deals between big and small firms, along with universities
or other public research institutions, said Monsanto spokeswoman
Camille Lynne Scott.
Monsanto - which was
recently acquired by Bayer AG - invested $100 million in startup
Pairwise Plants this year to
accelerate development of gene-edited plants.
North Carolina-based Benson Hill, founded in 2012 and named
after two scientists, mainly licenses crop technology to other
companies. But it decided to produce its own higher-yielding corn
plant because of the low development costs, said Chief Executive
Calyxt plans to sell the oil from its gene-edited soybeans to food
companies and has a dozen more gene-edited crops in the pipeline,
including high-fibre wheat and potatoes that stay fresh longer.
Developing and marketing a traditional genetically modified crop
might easily cost $150 million, which only a few large companies can
afford, Crisp said.
With gene-editing, that
cost might fall as much as 90 percent, he said.
"We're seeing a huge
number of organizations interested in gene-editing," Crisp said,
referring to traditional crop-breeding companies, along with
technology firms and food companies.
"That speaks to the
power of the technology and how we're at a pivotal point in time
to modernize the food system."
REGULATORY, PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE
Supporters of gene-editing say it allows a higher level of precision
than traditional modification.
CRISPR, one popular type of
gene-editing technology used by Syngenta, scientists transfer an RNA
molecule and an enzyme into a crop cell. When the RNA encounters a
targeted strand of DNA inside the cell, it binds to it and the
enzyme creates a break in the cell's DNA.
Then, the cell repairs
the broken DNA in ways that disrupt or improve the gene.
Graphic on how
Syngenta process works
Biotech firms hope the technology can avoid the "Frankenfood" label
that critics have pinned on traditional genetically modified crops.
But acceptance by
regulators and the public globally remains uncertain.
The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on July 25 that
gene-editing techniques are subject to regulations governing
genetically modified crops.
The ruling will limit gene-editing in Europe to research and make it
illegal to grow commercial crops. The German chemical industry
association called the decision "hostile to progress."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue blasted the ruling
for enacting unnecessary barriers to innovation and stigmatizing
gene-editing technology by subjecting it to the EU's "regressive and
outdated" regulations governing genetically modified crops.
The USDA also has no current plans to regulate gene-editing in
animal products, according to a document provided by the agency.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, plans to regulate
gene-editing in both plants and animals, FDA Commissioner Scott
Gottlieb wrote in a June blog post.
The agency is developing
an "innovative and nimble" approach to regulating gene-editing, he
wrote, that will aim to ensure its safety for both humans and
animals while allowing companies to bring beneficial products to
The USDA, by contrast, chose not to regulate gene-edited crops
because the process typically introduces characteristics that are
"indistinguishable" from those created through traditional plant
breeding, which take much longer, USDA Secretary Perdue said in a
Although there has been no widespread consumer resistance to
gene-editing, activists who have long opposed genetically modified
crops remain suspicious of any sort of tinkering with DNA.
The new technique raises
risks of creating undesired changes in the food supply and warrants
increased regulation, said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the
Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
That kind of opposition is why agribusiness giant Cargill Inc is
pursuing gene-edited technology with caution, said Randal Giroux,
the firm's vice-president of food safety, quality and regulatory
Cargill announced in February that it would collaborate with
Precision BioSciences to develop healthier canola oil, but is
proceeding slowly on agreements to store and transport other
companies' gene-edited crops pending clarity from regulators, Giroux
"We really do want to
see gene-editing evolve in the marketplace," Giroux said. "We're
watching to see how consumers adopt these products and react to
Other major agriculture biotech firms are moving more aggressively,
hoping to take advantage of lighter regulation to speed development.
A gene-edited crop may take five years to move from development to
commercialization in the United States, compared with a genetically
modified crop that could take 12 years, said Dan Dyer, head
of seeds development at Syngenta.
The firm is working on better-tasting tomatoes that take longer to
spoil and hopes to launch a gene-edited crop in the mid-2020s, said
Jeff Rowe, Syngenta's president of global seeds.
DowDuPont - at a secret location in
the U.S. Midwest - is field-testing waxy corn, a variety grown for
industrial purposes that has been edited for higher yields.
The company plans a
commercial launch next spring.
Smaller firms will be nipping at the heels of these massive
companies in the race to bring the next generation of genetically
engineered foods to market, said Robert Wager, a biology
faculty member at Vancouver Island University.
"The lack of
USDA-regulated status is a huge game-changer," he said, "for
universities and small startups to enter the market."