🍁 CRISPR & Cannabis
Engineering plant varietals for a new climate
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"Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species" — Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
A Single Point of Failure
One of the many conveniences of modern life in the developed world is our near instantaneous access to necessities: electricity, clean water, shelter and food. Thanks to industrialized agriculture, you can stop by virtually any grocery chain or big box store and find consistent, uniform produce. Perfectly spherical oranges, really red peppers, or uncannily symmetrical cucumbers. In fact, this has become a consumer standard. So much so that certain suppliers dispose of produce that don't meet the aesthetic requirements of the modern shopper (more on food waste here). This uniformity goes beyond visually appealing veggies, all the way to the core of our food system. It's a problem of agrobiodiversity and one that poses a threat that outweighs your desire for seedless grapes.
You're probably familiar with genetically modified organisms (known commonly as GMOs) due to their notoriety in the health and wellness community. The elevator pitch you'll usually get is GMOs = bad and organic food = good. It's not quite that simple. Definitions and adherence to standards gets blurry on both sides, meaning there are "good" genetic modifications and "bad" organics (think of it like greenwashing for food products). I'm not here to debate these distinctions, rather to explain that we've been genetically engineering our food since the early 90s. And it had its merits. By inserting optimal DNA into a seed, we could breed crops that had favorable traits like longer shelf-life or resistance to pestilence. In principle, this seemed like a creative way to increase the food supply and mitigate waste/rot. But as decades passed by, consumer desires crept into the criteria and as a result we started to homogenize our crops. We made a trade-off: convenience, consistency, high yield and resistance in exchange for a monolithic foundation to our food supply.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Right? Well, it's not broken just yet, but the forecast is changing. Today, we have ample food supply and genetically modified crops tweaked to perfection for Earth's climate. But what happens when the temperature rises in China (highest density of rice production)? What happens to wheat when the Midwest starts flooding? Will farmers be able to predict optimal plant varieties for the upcoming mass migrations? In short, we've engineered our most critical source of nutrition down to a single point of failure (OK, a dozen points of failure). I don't like those odds for a global population nearing 8 billion with mounting existential threat.
Don't worry, this piece isn't all fire and brimstone. We have a way to reverse the trend and re-introduce agrobiodiversity to a world undergoing transformation. Ironically, this will also be a feat of engineering. Through a technique known as CRISPR in which we edit plant genes instead of manipulating/modifying them.
I've never worked on a farm and the last time I sat in on a biology class was in 2009. But I did get a chance to speak to Ying Shao, Co-Founder & CEO of French Tech startup Plantik Biosciences, who filled me in on her vision for how we might achieve this. At their core, Plantik aims to accelerate plant breeding with "patent-derived know-how" and cutting edge science. Their long-term objective is to build a genetic database where anyone can create and grow plant breeds with a simple UI powered by machine learning (and years of data) adaptive to their local needs. From a technical standpoint, there's tons of hard research and data science that needs to take place. We'll get to this. But as a biological starting point, there's a clear frontrunner for up-front research: hemp. Due to its unbounded versatility and virtual abundance it serves as an ideal plant-based guinea pig. Nevertheless, it comes with some cultural baggage. Ideally, Ying's work (and the work of many others) can educate the public while transforming our approach to plant biodiversity for an uncertain future.
L'histoire de Hemp (Hemp History)
Hemp originated in Central Asia and is credited as one of the first domesticated plants in the world. Archeological evidence points to its arrival in southern France during the Neolithic Age, roughly 4000 BCE. Hemp, as pictured below, is an incredibly versatile plant, hence it's strategic value across empires.
France's relationship with the plant is particularly rich. The French Royal Navy used it for rope and to produce wood sealant called "oakum." In 1812, it's said that Napoleon invaded Russia, in part, to cut off hemp supply to the British, a crucial resource they lacked domestically.
During the 20th century, however, hemp production declined due to the introduction of other fibers, namely cotton. With available alternatives and increasing cultural taboo around some hemp byproducts, much of Europe banned its production. France is the only European country never to have prohibited production during this period. Despite France's tight-knit relationship with hemp, perception around its psychoactive properties have wavered (read more on the War on Cannabis via MIT Press). One of several "exports" from Napoleon's invasion of Egypt includes hashish, the local mind-altering substitute for alcohol in a predominantly Muslim country. It turns out French soldiers took to the substance and despite an ordinance banning its use, brought ample supply to their countrymen back home. Throughout the 1800s, hashish was introduced to the cultural elite. Jacques-Joseph Moreau is said to be one of the very first psychiatrists to extensively study its relationship with mental illness. He even belonged to a group called "Le Club des Hashischins" (Hash-Eaters Club) counting among its member luminaries like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire & Honoré de Balzac.
Between 1993 and 2015, France produced over half of the hemp in Europe. So taking into account its versatility, domestic abundance and long-standing history it's no wonder hemp stands out as a conduit to explore plant biodiversity in conjunction with bleeding edge scientific techniques.
Green Thumb Biohackers
Alright, we've covered the problem (diminishing agrobiodiversity in the midst of climate change) and a logical starting point for foundational research, especially for a French biotech startup (hemp). Now let's envision the solution. For that, I'll return to the conversation with Ying of Plantik Biosciences. We began our discussion imagining food production 30+ years hence. If all goes to plan with Ying's work, what might the agricultural landscape look like? It felt like material from a science fiction novel, but in truth it's not that far of a stretch. Imagine a console where you can define the inputs: local climate, purpose for said strain of plant, requisite resistance to disease/external factors. Say, for example, you're a local farmer in Morocco growing hemp for nutritional value (oils), in a hot, arid climate that's at risk for blight. In an ever-changing climate with multiple variables, our farmer may want to adapt his seed strategy year over year to optimize yield.
In this future scenario, our farmer friend inputs these parameters, the software runs simulations based on the millions of strains that have been modified for purpose and then genetically engineers a blend according to the above inputs. Then, just next to the console, is a 3D bio-printer that constructs additive layers until a tailor-made seed is formed. This would be the culmination of decades of work in this space, in addition to serious advancements in biology, 3D printing, data science, and genetic engineering. Sounds amazing, right?
Admittedly, we have a number of steps before our farmer in Marrakesh is 3D printing next season's bumper crop. So how do we bridge the gap? According to Ying, they are deep in the research phase, cultivating a database of genetic information across hemp species that will serve as their data model for the future. Each new species they genetically sequence (and later use to modify adjacent strains) drives a continuous feedback loop serving to strengthen the model. For much of this research they are partnering with labs in Ireland. The data flywheel is spinning but there is still a long time horizon. Which is why a near-term business model is in place to achieve revenue long before the vision is actualized. There are 3 channels for distribution Plantik could go after:
Direct to Consumer (DTC): off-the-shelf hemp seed varieties gene-edited for various features. Could be purchased by an amateur or small farmer via eCommerce like your favorite coffee roast. Editors Note: this could also be B2B2C in which someone cultivates the plant and re-sells.
" Single-Batch '' Custom Strains (B2B): In this case, a farmer, like our Moroccan example, might contact Plantik to have a particular strain gene-edited for purpose (since, you know, the magical bio-printer doesn't exist yet). This would look more like consultative work: going through requirements gathering, scoping & budgeting and then producing something & iterating based on contract terms.
Royalties & Licensing: If, for example, they generated a unique or highly valuable strain they could license it to "big seed" (think: Monsanto, now Bayer) for scale production and distribution. My understanding is that you can earn royalties on each seed sold, much like music royalties for songs played. Editors Note: if a trait like high-temperature resistance is developed in hemp, in theory it could be licensed for applications in other crops, like rice. Transferring unique properties or unique crops. The business model can get wildly innovative here!
Who's going to NFT the first gene-edited seed?
The aforementioned advantages make hemp a great minimal viable product, but following proof of concept, there are no limits to the types of crop they could explore.
To give you a sense of how this is accelerating, between 2019-20 the number of gene edited crops in the US went from 7 to 70, a 10-fold increase in a single year. And China is the country with the most patents in this area (you can interpret the economic and political implications yourself). All in all, there is high-growth in the sector, likely expedited due to unprecedented access to gene-editing technology and the urgency around climate change and its potential impact on our food supply. Long term viability is within reach and near term revenue is imminent.
As a final note, there's another French Tech company taking a slightly different approach: genetically engineering plants to fight air pollution. They're called Neoplants and they have a delightfully beautiful website and explanatory video. If this subject area is of interest, I encourage you to check out others in the space including Pairwise (US), Inari (US) & Tropic Biosciences (UK).
"Tens of thousands of French people use CBD-based products on a daily basis, representing in 2018 a market of over 300 million euros. Nearly 1,000 stores, dozens of product creators, farmers and extraction laboratories are investing, despite a complex legal situation, in the development of this segment in France" — Augur Associates
I feel like every time I turn a corner in Paris there's a new CBD shop opening up. Compared to California or Colorado, it feels like a nascent movement, but it has certainly arrived. When you think of Cannabis in Europe, you probably think Amsterdam.
But believe it or not, a 2015 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction claims that the French are the largest consumers in the EU! Nevertheless (and despite their history with the plant itself), they have some of the strictest rules around selling (up to 10 years in prison + €7.5M fine) and growing it (20 years + €7.5M fine) . Although in 2018, possession of small amounts was decriminalized (€200 fine as opposed to an arrest). Arguably the most counterproductive outcome is the stymied research efforts for medical use as a result of the stringent policies.
This "controversial" plant has been in and out of vogue for millennia for what many would consider its primary strength: versatility. It appears we are on an upswing in popularity and acceptance. Combined with the impact-oriented science leveraging hemp as a primary subject to avert climate catastrophe, this could be the very inflection point that enables change for the better.
High Value Resources
A lot of my research and limited knowledge of the space is thanks to the team at Augur Associates, a leading French think tank and consulting firm focused on CBD and Cannabis policy. You can check out their whitepapers here and listen to a podcast in which they were guests below (in English!).
If you're wondering how they grow and sell CBD in France... The definition of something that is an acceptable consumer product versus an illegal street drug varies from region to region, usually by amount of THC (the psychotropic compound found in the plant). In the EU, it has to be less than 0.2% THC. Even within this strict range, there is a lot of variety.
Lastly, we mentioned France is the highest producer of Hemp in the EU. But where do they stack up worldwide? Just behind Canada and (you guessed it) China on the world stage.
Special thanks to Gonz Sanchez @ Seedtable for the co-sign!
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