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The north facade and lawn of the new White House.
Image credit: drnadig / iStock

A new White House signals new opportunities for agtech startups. Are we up for the challenge?

February 9, 2021

Editor’s note: Ponsi Trivisvavet is CEO at Inari, a seed genetics startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

Much has been analyzed and debated as the new administration enters the White House, but President Joe Biden has made a number of appointments that clearly illustrate his commitment to addressing climate change and the critical role science will play.

He has elevated the role of Science Advisor to a cabinet-level position. It will be filled by mathematician, geneticist, MIT professor and founding director of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander.

Biden has also created a new White House Office of Climate Policy. And one of his very first acts as president was signing executive orders to enable the US to rejoin the international Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.

It’s also clear that agriculture will play a major role, with Biden saying, “we see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process.”

Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack, who looks set to return to the post he held during the Obama administration, has indicated that he will quickly ramp up programs to combat climate change.

Simply put, “expect administrative actions aplenty from a variety of USDA [US Department of Agriculture] agencies to combat climate change,” he said.

The time is right

The need couldn’t be more pressing, or more clear. 2020 was one of the hottest years on record, tied with 2016 .Carlo Buontempo, director of the EU’s Copernicus service, noted it is “no surprise that the last decade was the warmest on record, and is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future.”

Research reported by ScienceNews projects global farmland will need to grow 3.4 million square kilometers – approximately the size of India – by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing population. But, as the article notes, an overhaul of the global food system could drastically reduce the need for land while still feeding the world’s ever-expanding population.

The need to address climate change is nothing new, but the new White House is signaling new opportunities for agriculture to lead the way with science and technology.

Agriculture has an impressive history: the technology of recent times has allowed food producers to keep pace with the spectacular growth in the population, with approximately 6 billion more mouths to feed in the last 60 years alone. But agriculture currently requires more resources than can be replaced. This is clearly not sustainable.

A radical new approach is needed, and startups have the agility to bring new technology to market at the pace which is required. So, are we up to the challenge?

Leading with technology

The problem to date isn’t a lack of desire to address these pressing environmental issues. Simply put, existing practices and technology cannot sustainably feed a world of 8 billion people.

There is a great deal of focus being put on soil, which is critical; but let’s not forget the seed. Everything we grow begins with a seed – it holds all of the potential and determines the resources needed to grow.

The seed technology on the market today is primarily focused on pest and weed management. This was critical in meeting the demands of the recent past and will certainly continue to be relevant as we move forward.

However, in our efforts to address these issues, we inadvertently reduced the diversity in major crops – one of nature’s best survival tools – by selecting for traits that best met the needs of the day.

So, how can we bring back biodiversity without sacrificing productivity or growing crops that require more resources?

By designing better seeds.

At Inari, our SEEDesign platform aims to take on this challenge with the ambitious goal of satisfying demand while enriching the environment. Through predictive design and advanced multiplex gene editing, we are developing seeds that generate a positive impact on the planet. This technology is capable of addressing any crop in any geography.

Advanced multiplex gene editing opens the door to new possibilities with seed because it can address very complex genetic challenges.

President Biden and the future of regenerative agriculture in the US – read more here

To make a significant impact on yield or dramatically improve a plant’s use of water, you have to make multiple changes within a single plant. Basic gene knockout is often too blunt of an editing tool to properly address all of the changes required. While you might need to knock out a gene in one part of the code, another might require only a slight adjustment; whereas another might need to be replaced altogether, all within the same seed.

These types of edits aren’t simple, but are possible with the right technology. By understanding the full potential of seed, we can unlock new possibilities and better address the specific needs of growers based on their land, creating more diversity in the seeds being planted.

It’s not that others have decided not to tackle these complex issues within a seed – it’s simply that the technology didn’t exist. As startups, this is where our agility comes into play. When you are small, it’s easier to be nimble and quickly pivot.

Value creation across the system

Despite historical advances, the people who grow our food have not always received their fair share of the value created by new technology. While Vilsack recently spoke of creating a “whole new suite of revenue streams” for farm income, it’s equally important to ensure value creation with new technology being brought to market.

Part of the struggle in the past is that regulatory hurdles associated with genetic modification of seeds added significant time and cost. This made it nearly impossible for anyone but the large industry players to compete. The added time and costs also played a role in driving competitive intellectual property and exclusivity strategies, which only contributed to further to cost.

Conversely, the regulatory environment for gene editing technology in the US will enable a clear and efficient path to get the technologies in the hands of growers. This will also help to democratize the technology and let players of all sizes compete in the development of new solutions.

In order to ensure value creation across the food system, we’re going to have to work with the new White House to ensure clear paths to market. This will encourage competition at every level and bring more viable solutions to growers.

In sharing value creation with farmers, we not only protect their income, but allow their communities to benefit as well.

Making agriculture the climate hero

With clear signals from the Biden administration, now is the time for startups to show our leadership with truly innovative solutions.

Many of us have dedicated our work to finding more sustainable solutions for agriculture. We have been asking for the opportunity to show how agriculture can mitigate climate change and we’ve seen a number of organizations roll-out ‘net zero’ commitments. This is a great start.

I challenge my fellow agtech leaders – especially those in the startup space – to work towards a shared goal of positively impacting the environment with the technology we bring forward. We know our organizations are best suited to move at the speed which is required to meet the challenges ahead. Let’s work in cooperation to address the needs of our industry and the planet.

So, are we up for the challenge?

I believe we are.

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