AfS at 5: Five reasons to be excited about biotech

By Ian Gazard

August 27, 2019

The Cornell Alliance for Science was founded five years ago, and I’ve been a supporter from the beginning. I’ve never seen a more powerful, impactful cause. The Alliance is the key to improving the lives of billions by unlocking valuable crop biotechnology.

As I’ve learned about the technology’s applications in agriculture, I’ve also met scientists on three different continents and become increasingly enthusiastic about breakthroughs in the wider biotech field. To celebrate five years of the Alliance, I’m sharing five reasons to be excited about biotechnology.

Explosive growth

Growth in biotech is exploding on many fronts.  Over the past decade, scientists have realized they are no longer limited by genes found in nature and are able to reprogram cells in whole new ways.  A revolution is under way which will see biotech play an increasing role in many of the products we consume and provide material help in tackling some major global challenges.

One fast-growing segment is synthetic biology, which The Economist featured for the first time in a major story. Over $3.8 billion was raised for growing companies in the synthetic biology sector in 2018—double that of 2017, according SynBioBeta.

The largest company in the space is Ginkgo Bioworks, which has revolutionized the industry with its building block approach.  “We are really building the platform that lets you design organisms,” says CEO Jason Kelly, who adds, “Food, housing, materials, electronics—all will be disrupted by biology.”

Nothing highlights the excitement about synthetic biology/biotechnology more than IGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine), a competition held in Boston every October that attracts growing numbers of student teams from all over the world. Teams compete to produce the best synthetic biology projects and their enthusiasm is infectious. The 2019 list is the largest ever, with 375 teams and almost 4,000 students participating from a very diverse set of 45 countries.

In New York, not one, but two community biology labs have sprung up.  Michael Flanagan, founder of the first (Genspace), says the lab represents “citizens’ access to biotechnology.”  I took Genspace’s “biohacker” course and learned how to sequence my DNA. It was a real eye-opener and highly recommended for those interested in biotech.

Tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges

How does biotech help reduce poverty?  Humanitarian GMOs, funded by non-profit groups, are making their mark in the developing world.  Farmers in Bangladesh growing GMO eggplant have seen a six-fold increase in incomes due to less pesticide usage and higher yields.  Now Nigeria’s 5 million cowpea farmers, many very poor, will benefit from a superior biotech crop. And 300 million African consumers of maize are poised to benefit from maize/corn that is pest- and drought-resistant.  Many people I talk to are not aware that humanitarian GMOs exist, and that they can dramatically reduce pesticide use.

Pressure on the oceans is being addressed on multiple fronts.   Biotech plant-based fish products are likely to help meet the growing demand for fish.  NuFarm Australia is growing omega-3 canola, a GMO crop that can be fed to farmed fish in the aquaculture industry.  This can help fix aquaculture’s largest problem, that of depleting the ocean of small fish for use as food for farmed fish. In North America, AquaBounty is approved to sell their fast-growing biotech salmon, which can be raised in tanks inland, far from the ocean.  These and other tools will help reduce pressure on oceans.

Climate change is an enormous and complex problem which will require all the tools in the toolbox.  Biotechnology will supply many new tools. Improved biotech crops increase yields and reduce pressure on forests by reducing the amount of land cleared for new fields.  Improving the microbes in the soil around crops can reduce fertilizer use, one of the more carbon-intensive parts of agriculture.  Rice is a major carbon emitter and better biotech varieties can reduce that. And gene-edited crops that store more carbon in their roots are in the works. Deforestation is a major cause of climate change with palm oil demand a key culprit.  Synthetic palm oil, as produced by C16 Biosciences, could help. As could a GMO safflower developed by Australia’s CSIRO, which can be a substitute for palm oil in some applications.

Taking a proactive stance on the virtues of biotech

Powerful, fast-growing companies are being proactive about touting biotech’s benefits.  In Boston, Ginkgo employees wear “I Love GMO” shirts and go out of their way to explain the advantages of biology as a tool.  As CEO Jason Kelly says, “People should prefer GMO because it’s biology.”

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Rachel Konrad of Impossible Foods takes on critics of biotech forcefully.  For example, she describes “Moms Across America” (MAA) as “an anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, anti-science, fundamentalist group that cynically peddles a toxic brew of misinformation.”  No room for doubt there!

Ginkgo Bioworks and Impossible Foods are clearly making a contribution to improving the world via their unique and groundbreaking products.  It’s refreshing to see their strong advocacy for biotechnology.

Biotech is demand driven

Ultimately, the success of any new technology will be decided by consumer demand.  Here the message is clear: consumers and farmers globally are demanding biotech.

This year, thousands of Indian farmers have staged a peaceful protest to demand GMO seeds.  They can’t believe Bangladeshi farmers have superior eggplant seeds that are “illegal” to plant in India.  So they are planting GMO seeds as a protest all around the country. Mahatma Gandhi pioneered this kind of non-violent resistance and farmers are hoping it will give them access to the technology they want.

In the US, demand for the biotech Impossible Burger is overwhelming supply.  The company has entered into a joint venture with OSI to ramp up production to meet the insatiable demand.  And Calyxt’s healthier gene-edited soybean crop will double output in 2020.

Demand for biotech is global.  One of Nigeria’s most outspoken farmers is Patience Koko, who is not afraid to state what she and other African farmers want.  “Give us biotech seeds,” she says. Patience has received standing ovations in Europe and receptive crowds in New York with her call to “Let Africa decide.”

Scalability means impact

To make a difference biotech must be scalable.

What is more scalable than a more nutritious rice to improve the diets of many of the 3 billion rice consumers worldwide?  Or pest- and drought-resistant maize/corn that will help 300 million maize consumers in Africa? Bill Gates talks about scalability benefits as he describes the benefits of gene editing in agriculture: “It is also accelerating research that could help end extreme poverty by enabling millions of farmers in the developing world to grow crops and raise livestock that are more productive, nutritious and hardy.”

What is more scalable than improving many industrial processes?  Ginkgo’s building block approach, along with others like Zymergen, will revolutionize industrial processes all over the world.  According to The Economist, “industrial biotechnology” is already huge (worth $147 billion) and advances will speed up.  That means factories all over the world will benefit from some combination of less inputs, better products, faster processes and reduced environmental impact.

What is more scalable than improving plant photosynthesis?  Scientists believe that they can make crops more productive, while using less water, by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis.  I met Bob Furbank at Australia’s ANU who is part of a global coalition to crack the code. While this is a very complex challenge, new technologies like gene editing are helping speed up the work.

What is more scalable than reducing diseases?  Biotechnology is making advances in healthcare and medicine in many ways.  Bill Gates says it best when talking about gene editing and new advances like CRISPR:  “The technology is making it much easier for scientists to discover better diagnostics, treatments, and other tools to fight diseases that still kill and disable millions of people every year, primarily the poor.”

Given what has already been achieved, and what is currently in the pipeline, I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring in the fascinating field of biotech. Catch the buzz!

Ian Gazard is a former asset manager who now assists the Alliance for Science with fundraising as a member of its advisory board.