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Can gene editing help farmers satisfy the rising demand for food?

Israeli startup BetterSeeds is using CRISPR technology to address a growing global crisis

Israeli startup BetterSeeds is using Merck’s CRISPR gene-editing tools to design seeds for improved crops to meet rising food demand (Merck)
Israeli startup BetterSeeds is using Merck’s CRISPR gene-editing tools to design seeds for improved crops to meet rising food demand (Merck)

The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have given new urgency to the need to fight food insecurity. Israel’s BetterSeeds is developing crop genetics as a key way to solve the challenge.

BetterSeeds uses CRISPR gene-editing technology – “molecular scissors” that let scientists change an organism’s DNA – to design seeds that can produce crops that mature faster, produce a higher yield, and can adapt to changing climate conditions.

Much of the cost of farm produce comes from the expense of laboriously picking crops by hand. BetterSeeds’ gene editing is designed to make the crops amenable to automated harvesting, cutting the cost of the entire growth and harvesting process.

“Conventional breeding and the use of past genetic engineering technologies have reached their glass ceiling to optimize crops,” says Ido Margalit, CEO of BetterSeeds. The company says its broad CRISPR delivery technology will make it accessible generically to most crops, solving a big gap in applying gene editing techniques to agriculture and distinguishing BetterSeeds from its rivals.

As well as the licenses that BetterSeeds holds to the foundational CRISPR technology developed by the two scientists who were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, BetterSeeds has been licensed a unique CRISPR technology by the pharmaceuticals giant Merck, to validate its CRISPR gene-editing tools in agricultural uses.

“CRISPR-based integration is a fundamental tool for many genome-editing applications but has historically been exceptionally difficult to do in plants,” says Angela Myers, head of Gene Editing and Novel Modalities at Merck. “With this collaboration [with BetterSeeds] we aim to test the boundaries of the currently available technology in this critical sector helping to bring food security to millions whilst lowering the environmental impact of the farming process.”

By disrupting supply chains, the pandemic and the Ukraine war have highlighted widespread food shortages that threaten to get worse. Population growth and changing consumption patterns mean the world will need to increase food production by 70% to 100% in the next 50 years, according to the World Bank.

At the same time, climate change is posing a severe threat to agricultural systems and human nutrition. There is immense pressure on the agricultural sector to develop new ways to grow more resilient food more cheaply, while better protecting the environment.

Although farmers have long bred crops to tap various traits that make them more nutritious and increase shelf life, gene editing makes that process much more precise and rapid by introducing specific, controlled and preselected changes into a plant’s genome.

The race is on to find solutions to the negative effects of agriculture on the planet, as well as the growing demand for food, says Ido Yosovzon, head of AgriFoodTech at Start-Up Nation Central, a not-for-profit platform that connects Israeli startups to businesses, governments and institutions.

“Israel today is a very significant player” in the foodtech sector because it has a strong academic basis for biotechnology, Yosovson says. “Israel is having a big impact through gene-editing of seeds, the development of biopesticides and other food-protection products,” and its work in alternative proteins, he says.

BetterSeeds says the game-changing traits it can embed will allow farmers to grow crops that will be more resistant to extreme climates, while being less risky and expensive to grow and harvest. The company is currently working on highly nutritious black-eyed peas that are more resilient to climate changes than current legumes grown for plant-based proteins, and will produce higher yields on the same amount of land, using less water and fertilizers.

Inside the BetterSeeds lab (BetterSeeds)

Turning fruit trees and other perennials into seasonal crops means they will take one year, rather than eight, to mature, slashing growing costs and cutting the market risks caused by changing consumer tastes and catastrophes such as drought. And because the trees will be smaller when they yield fruit, they will also be adapted to automated harvesting.

“Agriculture is disappearing in the West because it isn’t profitable,” Margalit says. “So we have to make crops profitable.”

The company aims to launch commercially this year, with stable and uniform hemp seeds, a project it started before demand for food technology became so acute. It forecasts first revenue in 2023, through sales of seeds and out-licensing genetic traits, with sales growing significantly by 2027. Margalit estimates the overall potential market for gene-edited crops will grow to $100 billion by the end of 2030.

Because BetterSeeds does not introduce any foreign genetic material into its seeds, they are not considered to be genetically modified, thus avoiding the stringent regulation and negative public perception applied to GMO products.

The company aims to complete an initial public offering within 18 months, either on Nasdaq or the Toronto Stock Exchange, market conditions permitting. A $7 million funding round, with participation from OurCrowd investors, is winding up, and another round is planned.

BetterSeeds is raising an investment round through OurCrowd, the Jerusalem-based investment platform. For information, click HERE.

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