Unlocking market opportunities for private sector investors in CRISPR agriculture

Crispr agriculture

Private sector companies are at the forefront of driving innovation and commercialization in CRISPR-based agriculture. We see various companies, both large and small-scale, leveraging CRISPR-Cas technology to transform crop improvement and enhance food production. These companies are shaping the future of the agricultural industry and driving the market for CRISPR-edited plants.

Breakthrough research and development are being conducted in the private sector which could speed up the process of planting CRISPR-edited seeds in fields. Achieving sustainability in agriculture is one of the top priorities in the private sector. In Sept 2021, genome-edited food (tomatoes) made with CRISPR–Cas9 technology by Sanatech Seed were sold for the first time in the open market. There is also a substantial increase in the number of research publications mentioning the use of CRISPR for crop improvement since 2016.

The agrotech company Pairwise wants to harness the CRISPR technique to make healthy foods more appealing to consumers and claims that consumers will be able to buy fruits and vegetables that are easier to snack on within 4-5 years. Baby carrots or seedless watermelons obtained through CRIPSR are considered a healthy alternative to instant snacks and packed food.

Other leaders in the industry include Pioneer, which is generating better-performing hybrid crop seeds that address farmers’ needs using the latest breeding and gene editing tools to provide higher-yielding and more resilient crops. Bayer Crop Science, a sub-division of pharmaceutical giant Bayer, is aiming for a 30% reduction in field greenhouse gases, a 30% reduction in agriculture’s impact on the environment, and empowering 100 million smallholder farmers to access sustainable agricultural solutions by 2030.

Alongside agriculture technology giants, some small-scale entities and startups are venturing into this domain. Inari, a Cambridge-based startup, Massachusetts has ambitious goals for gene editing in corn with increasing yield by 20% and reducing water and nitrogen usage by 40%. Inari is employing its proprietary genetic design software powered by machine learning for researching genetic interactions and pathways instead of single genes to edit multiple genes at once using CRISPR, ultimately generating a variety of seeds that are ideal for different growing conditions. 

Another CRISPR agricultural technology startup in Europe includes PlantEdit, founded in 2017 and based in Ireland. PlantEdit has optimized a protocol to introduce CRISPR gene edits without using additional DNA into apple and grapevine, which is reported to be faster, more efficient, and can be adapted for other crops. Yet another startup founded in 2015 and based in the Netherlands, Hudson River Biotechnology, uses a proprietary workflow called TiGER (Target identification, Guide selection, Entry into the cell, and Regeneration) for gene editing of a variety of crops to achieve desirable traits. The experience of the technology giants, novel solutions introduced by startups, and collaborations with academic researchers is expected to create effective yet affordable innovative solutions for the agriculture industry shortly which will ensure food security worldwide.

Market potential

The Global Plant Breeding & CRISPR Plants Market size is expected to become nearly $24 Bn by 2027. The factors such as an increase in the number of crop damages due to harsh climatic conditions, growing awareness about the benefits of plant breeding & CRISPR plants in the agricultural sector, and the high adoption rate of the plant-breaded crop in the Latin America region are driving the market growth.

Below are a few pioneering startups in the CRISPR agriculture domain have been detailed below:

CRISPR-agriculture
Dates in the bracket are the dates of the latest funding raised

Rice is the top CRISPR-modified crop with a total 122 no. of rice genes modified till now with the CRISPR/Cas system for crop improvement followed by tomato (30 genes) and oilseed rape (17 genes)

Gene-modified-crispr-crops

Limitations and prospects

CRISPR-Cas technology has been proven to have the unique capability to modify genes and create diverse crop varieties with desired agronomic traits. However, most of the gene-editing work for crop improvement is still at the stage of elucidating the genomic function and regulatory mechanisms. The commercialization of CRISPR crops still has a long way to go with gene-editing tools yet to fulfill all the requirements for plant genome editing. 

Technical limitations

It has been observed that some quality-related traits are controlled by many Quantitative Trait Locus (QTLs) and regulate individual genes which may not cause significant phenotypic change that further limits the utilization of CRISPR-Cas in plants. One possible solution is to develop the CRISPR/Cas-mediated chromosome rearrangement method.

Another technological challenge for CRISPR in plants is the low efficiency of innate Homology-Directed Repair (HDR), which hampers applications such as gene replacement and large chromosomal deletions. Low HDR efficiency in plants is currently making gene insertions in plants challenging.

Related reading: CRISPR crops: The next frontier in sustainable agriculture and global food security

Regulatory mechanism

There are strict regulatory norms concerning any technology or product related to the human body viz, drug, food, genetics, surgical instruments, etc. While there are strong and well-defined regulatory standards for genetic engineering products like GMO crops, regulations for CRISPR-based crops are still undefined. This situation further delays the commercialization of CRISPR-based foods. For example, the EU regulates CRISPR crops as GM crops even when the products are free from foreign DNA and are without transgene-free thus increasing the time and cost of crop variety development.

Public acceptance

With promising research and attempts in CRISPR technology in agriculture to alleviate food insecurity and bring about a revolutionary change in food supply and quality, there are, however, public concerns that may hinder innovations in plant breeding. There are huge concerns among plant breeders regarding CRISPR gene-edited food, policies and legal frameworks concerning technology, intellectual property rights, and high development costs in low-income countries. 

Therefore, to fully realize the potential of CRISPR, consumers need to be informed about its benefits for both producers and the environment. Awareness must include a better understanding of how these tools could work, where they could work, and what impediments will keep them from working. 

In the current scenario, it is important to display how plant scientists across regions and sectors see this promising technology evolving in real life which will ensure its larger adaptation. Despite the challenges that need to be overcome, it is believed that gene-editing technology like CRISPR will be more widely adopted in the future and will inevitably play an important role in crop quality improvement that too at an affordable price.


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