soybean
Image credit: Avi Kaler, a computational biologist at Benson Hill

As agtech moves from “more with less” to higher quality, Benson Hill Seeds has right idea for 2020

December 9, 2019

Do more with less. It’s probably fair to say that’s been the key mantra for the agtech industry over the past decade.

As panic hit about the need to feed 10 billion people on the planet in 2050, innovators and investors have focused on bringing products to the market that can grow more crops on less land, or more meat and dairy with fewer animals – or no animals at all! As the agriculture industry seeks to lessen its negative impact on the environment and compete with a harsher environment and fewer natural resources, it’s also been about fewer harmful inputs, whether that’s fertilizers and pesticides or animal antibiotics.

The reality is that we produce more than enough food to feed that 10 billion already — a third of food grown is wasted — but yet, a large portion of the world is undernourished; nearly one billion people go to bed hungry each day while obesity rates are skyrocketing in developed markets such as the US and Europe. In the US, over a third of adults are obese while in the UK well over half are either overweight or obese.

So while “do more with less” is still an important and relevant mantra into the next decade and beyond — the above remains true plus many agtech products promising to do this still have some way to go — I hope and expect to see more focus on improving the characteristics of the food humans and animals eat from a nutritional standpoint.

One mature agtech startup has recently made a stand to do just that. Benson Hill is a biotech startup using computational biology and gene-editing to discover and produce crops with improved characteristics including crop performance, nutrition profiles, and taste and texture. And it’s just launched a seed company to market the discoveries it’s made in soybeans, with a focus on meeting the growing consumer demand for plant-based products with nutritionally denser crops, as well as higher-quality animal feed.

Known for its high protein content, soybean is a popular ingredient for vegetarian consumers with tofu and meat alternatives including the Impossible Burger as obvious examples. But despite its appearances as a healthy alternative, soybean in its simplest form can actually be “anti-nutritional” due to the presence of trypsin inhibitors. Trypsin is an enzyme involved in the breakdown of many different proteins in digestion by both humans and other animals, including young ruminants such as cows. If that enzyme is not allowed to work, it means that proteins are less available and efficient and therefore not fully digested by whoever is consuming them. This means that “dietary protein is excreted in the feces,” according to Science Direct; sounds like a waste of time to me!

So one way Benson Hill Seeds is improving the nutritional profile of this crop for both humans and livestock is by lowering the presence of these trypsin inhibitors. There are other methods of reducing the activity of those inhibitors; in soymilk, microwave treatment is used, and others have discovered chemical ways of doing so too. But imagine not needing that extra bit of processing?

Soybeans are also high in linoleic acid. As we all learned with the rise and fall of margarine, food science has a habit of changing from one day to the next, but according to current research, put simply, linoleic acid, which is also present in other oils like flaxseed, canola, and sunflower, is bad. It is increasingly understood to be harmful for heart health because of potential pro-inflammatory and thrombogenic properties. It’s also been linked to obesity.

Benson Hill Seeds has a variety that’s low in linoleic acid content, but high in “good” oleic oil. Oleic oil is currently understood to be able to lower the bad kind of cholesterol without lowering the good kind (thanks EatingMadeEasy.com). It also has none of those nasty trans fats. This is potentially big news for the US where soybean oil is the most widely-used oil in commercial cooking in the US — think french fries at your local fast-food joint. According to Jeff Johnson, president of Benson Hill Seeds, this discovery could make soybean oil “the healthiest frying oil on the market.”

Benson Hill Seeds has already been working with food companies on some of these properties via eMerge Genetics, the seeds business it acquired earlier this year. But the animal ag focus will be something new.

“What’s exciting is that we have soybean varieties that give growers the opportunity to work across these different markets; a livestock product might say they want grain that meets a certain set of criteria and quality standard and we can give them those varieties. The same on the food side; food companies might be looking for something specific for their tofu or their plant-based milk product.”

This shortening of the supply chain — where food company and livestock producer are effectively interacting with the biotech company producing the seed for its ingredients — is another trend I expect to see more of in 2020 and beyond.

Benson Hill is not the only startup focused here; Agrivida is developing nutritionally-enhanced poultry feed from corn. Nutrition Innovation is developing a low-glycemic natural cane sugar product. AgFunder portfolio company Brightseed is discovering the healthy bioactives present in current food crops and in plants we don’t eat but could. Planetarians is upcycling ingredients to promote their beneficial characteristics.

More: Innovators also want your pets to have better quality food — check out Jessica Pothering’s recent interview with Jinx.

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