Stakeholders have voiced concern over gene editing giving big business more control over food supply, but Defra argues much of the world’s top research into GE has been led by pioneering small- and medium-sized businesses.
According to a report by market analyst IHS Markit in 2020, plant breeding and food ingredient start-ups and small companies formed the largest segment of the GE market.
However, seed industry giants including Bayer, BASF, Corteva and Syngenta, constituted the second largest market segment, with Corteva and BASF listed in the top five companies with the largest number of activities in the GE space.
Dr Phil Howell, head of cereals pre-breeding at NIAB, believes the technology offers opportunities for both sectors.
“As with all new technologies, [GE technology] is disruptive and there’s a substantial presence of start-ups, but the big players are also involved.
There are some parallels with the farming industry here – small companies doing lots of interesting, risky things and sometimes the big companies step in with commercialisation.
“Having said that, because [GE] is cheaper, it means more targets are in range, so the niches are sometimes too small for the big companies to be interested in.
They become affordable for the small companies to do the commercialisation as well.”
Although GM crops have been grown in the US for a number of years, GE technology is still relatively new.
In 2019 seven applications for gene edited crops were submitted, rising to 70 in 2020, highlighting the speed of growth of the technology.
Minnesota-based plant technology company Calyxt launched the US’ first commercially-approved gene edited food in 2019.
The high oleic soybean oil contains around 80% oleic acid and up to 20% less saturated fat and at the end of December 2020, Calyxt contracted to sell all 2020 grain production of the soybean to ADM.
The oil has up to three times the fry life and extended shelf life compared to commodity oils, according to Calyxt.
In 2022, the company is planning to commercially plant GE wheat which has three times more dietary fibre, providing up to 100% of the recommended daily fibre requirement, hemp with marketable yield in 2023, cold-tolerant oat crops by 2026 and pulses with improved protein profiles and flavour the year after.
As well as this, the company is seeking to license traits it has developed to companies with commercialisation expertise and out-license its patented breeding technology.
Another US start-up, Benson Hill, has used GE technology to create the Ultra High-Protein soybean, which it says has up to 50% higher protein than current varieties.
With more than 90% of the country’s soybeans being GM, interestingly, the new variety is being contracted out to growers in the US for a premium because it is marketed as a non-GM crop.
Dr Howell says: “It’s lower yielding but the protein is so high they claim it gives more protein per hectare.
This reduces processing costs, energy and water usage for making high protein concentrates.
“They’ve also been doing fundamental research.
They’ve tied up the [intellectual property] for a new class of enzymes that they say is even more precise and that will give even cleaner CRISPR.” Meanwhile, at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, the ‘healthy heart’ tomato was given government approval in December.
The fruit features five times the normal amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid linked to lower blood pressure, thanks to tweaks to genes that normally limit GABA production.
Sanatech, a start-up derived from the university, plans to offer seedlings for home gardens, followed by seed sales to large-scale producers this year.