Food is so complicated – making it, growing it, choosing what to eat of it.
It’s tempting to say this is relatively recent, but if you could travel back in time to talk to the farmers who started selectively breeding corn from teosinte, they’d probably tell you figuring that out was no walk in the park. From a relatively slender stalk of segmented grass, thousands of years later we can now fatten a steer, sweeten a soda and drive a car all on the same crop.
Such advances in productivity no longer take millennia – instead, decades or only years.
This month, ag biotech firm Inari Agriculture announced it was awarded two U.S. patents for proprietary methods of editing the genome of corn and soybean seeds previously genetically modified (GM – a GMO is a GM organism) by other companies to enhance insect protection for the corn and weed management for the soy plants. The patents are based on Inari’s CRISPR technology for gene-editing, which changes each seed into a new “event,” or patent, separate from its GMO progenitor.
In late 2016, Inari began as a Flagship Pioneering startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now with branch locations in Belgium and at Purdue University’s Research Park in Indiana) to apply cutting-edge technology to help cash crops adapt to climate change by using fewer inputs such as water and fertilizer.
Inari’s goal has been to engineer improvements to widely grown crops like corn and soy, aiming for a 20% jump in yield for soy and 10% for corn while cutting the amount of water and nitrogen to corn by 40%. Such yield increases would be tremendous, given the fact corn has gained on average only 1.9 bushels a year since the 1950s, staying steady even with the introduction of transgenic traits over the past quarter-century or so.
For context, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated U.S. corn’s average bushels per acre in 2021 at 177 (and soy’s at 51.4) – so that 1.9 is now about 1% yearly.
Transgenic GM traits are those taken from outside species and inserted into the seed’s genome to confer upon the resulting plant some sort of enhancement or protection. One example is Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, genetically modified with a protein inserted from the Bt soil bacterium that kills European corn borer – the corn plant can resist larva trying to feed on it. Another example is the Roundup Ready soybean engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, designed to kill any other plant competing for the soybean’s water, nutrients and sunlight.
Historically, introducing a new GM trait into a crop requires adding a selectable marker telling the gene where to go, explained Inari Senior Director of Corporate Affairs Emily Negrin. Patents for these traits have been about recognizing the “event” created by the alteration for that inventor’s proprietary and financial benefit.
In general, what Inari has done in these corn and soybean patents is proven a novel method for going into each trait and targeting the transgene previously inserted to confer a specific favorable trait, in order to edit out the selectable marker – which Inari says serves no beneficial function for the plant. This creates two new patents separate from the previous DuPont Pioneer (corn borer resistance) and Monsanto (Roundup Ready soybean) patents.
Negrin said the company focuses on using multiplex gene editing to create plants giving better yield while using less water and fertilizer since there is no known single GM trait or edit so far that can do this. Otherwise, “somebody would have done it,” she added.
“No matter what we do here at Inari, our mission is always going back to, how do we create a major positive outcome? How do we contribute to a winning food system?” said Inari CEO Ponsi Trivisvavet. She described each company effort as threefold: to improve yield and productivity, use less of the planet’s resources and boost the profitability of farmers and, in turn, buoy rural economies.
Further, the mission is to do all three in tandem toward “unlocking the full potential of seeds for growers and the environment – we think they can coexist.”
Working with GMO seeds is important because she said more than 450 million acres globally are planted to these, including 90 percent of U.S. corn and soy acres (in 2021, U.S. farmers harvested 85.4 million corn and 86.3 million soy acres – year-to-year, each varies at most by a few percent).
“You can marry the best of the gene editing for sustainability with the genetic modification that is needed” to produce the best seed, Trivisvavet said. “It’s too critical for us to feed the world … I hope that the debate would be around the benefit to the farmers rather than the technology itself.”
One intended benefit to growers is the higher yield/lower inputs scenario. Another potential benefit could be in how farmers buy seed. GM seed is not cheap, both because of the research and development and the fees smaller independent seed companies have to pay giants like Bayer-Global (which bought Monsanto) and Corteva Agriscience (owner of DuPont Pioneer) to access the GM tech to use in their own bags. Inari’s editing patents are considered unique and can be licensed directly to any seed company, including smaller ones.
Trivisvavet said Inari will begin its marketing in the United States, then branch into South America and globally. She anticipates the first seeds may be available to farmers within 3-4 growing seasons.
Inari has several more patents pending, some of which she expects to be granted in the coming months. The company has also filed five “concept patent” applications that cover a broader array of GM traits in major crops, including cotton and canola as well. If the individual patents each address one specific edit, a concept patent is meant to codify a method that can be used in numerous edits.