Creating the cultures we need to save our future

One of the main challenges facing the world of agriculture is that it is simply not profitable enough. Fields are dying in the developed world. Farmers around the world are struggling to grow and sell their crops. Food shortages are a real threat.

A big reason for these problems is the fact that many crops have to be harvested by hand, which is costly in labor and labor.

Israeli startup BetterSeeds plans to genetically modify the architecture of many types of crops to allow mechanized picking.

Ido Margalit, Founder and CEO of BetterSeeds. Photo by LUZ

If that sounds a bit too scientific, BetterSeeds CEO and Founder Ido Margalit cites a common and successful example: ketchup.

“Without a genetic trait discovered in tomatoes decades ago, we wouldn’t have had a ketchup or tomato paste industries. Because how come you pay so little money for ketchup made from so many kilograms of tomatoes? “

The answer, says Margalit, lies in the development of industrial tomatoes.

Ordinary tomatoes grow on vine trellises and cannot be machine harvested. The discovery of a certain genetic trait allowed tomatoes to grow as a bush in regular fields, easily harvested by machine. It kept the costs down so that we could get ketchup at a reasonable price.

“Pickle companies are desperate for a similar trait that will turn cucumbers, like tomatoes, into something that can be grown in the field,” Margalit notes. “We have found the gene that can be modified using CRISPR to allow it to be cultured in the field. “

A Nobel Prize-winning technique

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology has earned its developers the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. BetterSeeds licenses technology from Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard.

“This is the most important scientific breakthrough that will likely change the world of medicine and agriculture over the next few years and also much later,” says Margalit.

“Eight years ago, we recognized that agriculture will focus on improving plants based on this technology. We said we would improve the basic cultures using CRISPR.

Back then, food technology wasn’t a focal point for investors like it is today, he adds. “So we looked at the world of cannabis, which had a lot of problems that we could solve using CRISPR. “

BetterSeeds’ previous incarnation, CanBreed, used CRISPR gene editing technology to deliver stable and consistent hybrid hemp seeds for standardized medical grade cannabis. Margalit heads the Medical Cannabis Seeds Forum of the Association of Chambers of Commerce of Israel, which has just successfully secured government approval for the export of cannabis seeds from Israel.

With the rebranding to BetterSeeds, Margalit and its partners turned their attention to staple crops, especially cowpeas (black-eyed peas), soybeans and other legumes.

The BetterSeeds lab in the Givat Chen moshav in central Israel. Photo courtesy of BetterSeeds

Molecular scissors

Putting aside the negative public perception of GMO foods, Margalit explains that CRISPR does not insert foreign genes but rather uses what already exists in the plant.

“Gene editing can be compared to molecular scissors that run along the DNA of the plant and cut off parts at predetermined locations to receive the positive traits that interest you. It is precise and easy to use technology. “

Because no foreign genes are introduced into the plant, there is much less regulatory paperwork involved.

“All of our R&D is done by an Israeli team at our factory in Givat Chen,” he said, referring to an agricultural community in central Israel. “Our solutions are global. Our products are suitable for all over the world, not only developed countries but also developing countries.

BetterSeeds’ improved cannabis strains will likely hit the market in Israel by the end of the year, Margalit says.

“By the end of 2022, we will have substantial revenue from sales around the world. We will start marketing our cannabis-free products at the end of 2023, ”he predicts.

Apples and oranges

In the longer term, Margalit would like to launch into perennial crops, that is to say crops that are not planted annually but for the long term, such as apple trees and citrus fruits.

Gene-editing technology could make long-term investments less time-consuming and risky.

“Today, a farmer plants his crops and waits a few good years, during which he does not derive any income from the orchard. In the meantime, he hopes crops won’t catch disease or climate change won’t ruin everything, or consumer preferences and tastes won’t change, ”he notes.

“It’s a problem with perennial crops: you take the risk of having invested at the right time. Uprooting an orchard also costs a lot of money, and many farming families are simply stuck with certain crops. “

Gene editing would make the crop seasonal perennial, says Margalit.

“We are focusing on a number of genes that change not only the architecture of the plant but also its rate of maturity. Instead of reaching maturity after six years, it will reach maturity after a year and a half, and instead of trees it will be small trees that can be harvested mechanically.

apple orchards could become a seasonal affair. Photo by Matthew Rumph on Unsplash” data-src=”×625.jpg” alt=”” width=”760″ height=”475″ data-srcset=”×625.jpg 1000w,×480.jpg 768w, 1588w” sizes=”(max-width: 760px) 100vw, 760px”/>
Using BetterSeeds technology, apple orchards could become a seasonal affair. Photo by Matthew Rumph on Unsplash

This change would increase the versatility of farmers and the way they can use their land each year. This could make farming more profitable and expand the range of crops.

“It’s a very important vision,” says Margalit. “I think we can change the first strains from perennial to seasonal in 2025 or 2026. For each crop, we will have to adapt and tune the CRISPR, and that’s one of the challenges.

If Margalit had to choose a crop to focus on, it might be cowpea. This bean grown for human and animal consumption tolerates sandy soil and low rainfall typical of semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia.

“If I am to focus on the crop that suffers the biggest gaps, the most needed in the market and that would help feed the world, it’s cowpea. Even if we were only successful in this, we would have made huge changes.

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