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Israeli agri-tech firm weeds out food insecurity

Evogene practices the art of plant genomics to ensure adequate supplies of food, feed and fuel for a growing world population

Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)
Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)

The genetic modification of plants and crops is still a red flag for many consumer groups and legislators, but GMOs are slowly making their way into the food and farming ecosystem. Eventually, supporters say, GMOs will become a vital tool to ensure that the world has enough to eat.

Israel’s Evogene is one company that is applying GMO technology to improve crop quality and productivity. Through its PointHit platform, the biotech firm is using big data to analyze molecules in weeds and identify key plant macro-molecules responsible for essential biological processes in weeds. By targeting those processes, Evogene — or the companies that license its platform — will be able to develop herbicides that will be more effective in killing weeds.

The cutting-edge technology has caught the eye of Monsanto — a multinational that has done more than any other to commercialize genetic modification — which is now a major investor in Evogene.

Pros and cons of GMOs

Critics point to numerous studies that they claim provide evidence that genetically modified crops are damaging, with some scientists claiming that the few studies that have been conducted show clearly that many of the benefits of GMO touted by its supporters have not come to fruition, and that in fact GMO has its own set of major problems.

Other scientists disagree, claiming that the studies opponents cite are inconclusive.

But advocates say that the world really has no choice. As the population of earth continues to grow – likely to reach 8 billion by 2050 – genetic engineering is going to be necessary in order to ensure that the there is enough food for everyone.

In a recent interview, Rurik Halaby, the CEO of New York-based AgriCapital, one of the largest mergers and acquisition firms working in the agritech space, said that the demand for food will double by 2050.

“Fifty years ago, one hectare of land fed one person for a year. By 2050, we will have to increase that fivefold, so that a hectare feeds five people, he said. “Today the production of food depends a great deal on technology.”

Evogene clearly falls into that latter category.

“In order to ensure adequate supplies of food, feed and fuel, we face the challenging task of producing more output with reduced inputs,” according to the company.

“Improving plant performance so as to increase crop yield, bolster resistance to climate changes and reduce water requirements is the foremost solution for coping with these daunting challenges. Plant genomics offer a promising opportunity to improve plants.”

Genetically modified fuel

The US has been one of the few major markets to permit widespread use of GMO crops, especially corn and soybeans. GMO crops are more or less banned in major European countries, and even China, which has been opposed to GMO imports for years, only recently relented and authorized the import of some US genetically modified crops.

Increased public opposition to GMO is making it harder to bring products to market. In one recent case, for example, McDonald’s announced that it would not use a GMO apple that had been approved by the US Department of Agriculture, and EU courts have even annulled permissions issued earlier to grow and market GMO potatoes.

As a result of the increased opposition to GMO foods, industry experts say large GMO firms like Monsanto have been concentrating on non-food applications of the technology. One area in which GMO is actually welcome is biofuels, with genes in corn and soybeans grown specifically for fuel production enhanced to develop the crop’s characteristics that will ensure better fuel consumption.

Several months ago, for example, Monsanto teamed up with Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) to develop technologies for the advancement of castor cultivation in Brazil. The cooperation will primarily focus on technologies for controlling castor-specific diseases as well as practices for castor cultivation in rotation with soybeans.

Castor is considered by many scientists to be the perfect crop for fuel production because its oil is soluble in alcohol and does not require heat to be transformed into fuel. And, it’s easy to grow and thrives on marginal lands where raising food crops is difficult. About half of the content of the castor plant consists of oil, making it one of the most “generous” crops for the production of fuel.

Wacking away weeds

In its newest non-food program, Evogene seeks to bring new solutions to the $20 billion weed control solution business. The system is built on big data, with special algorithms analyzing plants and comparing their make-up to Evogene’s new chemical database, currently encompassing over 70 million chemicals derived from a variety of available sources, including synthetic and natural chemistry.

A unique property of the database is its ability to provide computational prediction of the chemical’s plant activity, namely the chemical’s ability to penetrate a plant and enable the necessary herbicidal effect – killing the weed in a targeted and controlled manner that is guaranteed to work every time. By doing so, the company says farmers will be able to use less chemicals, spend less money on herbicide and produce crops more safely.

According to Evogene, weeds lead to crop losses estimated at about $100 billion annually.

“Evogene looks to provide a powerful new discovery approach to one of agriculture’s most critical challenges and largest commercial opportunities,” said Ofer Haviv, the company’s president and CEO.

“Having put in place the necessary start-to-end infrastructure, with both biological and chemical discovery components in place, we now have the basis to explore go-to-market strategies and potential collaborations, as well as leverage our infrastructure to address future opportunities in related agro-chemical fields, such as insecticides and fungicides.”

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