Big Biotech Breakthrough Opportunities in Agriculture to Watch in 2021 and Beyond

Written by Jürgen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer

At Leaps, we are constantly scanning for potential biotech breakthroughs that hold promise to either cure millions of people from illness around the globe, or help feed a growing population amidst intensifying climate change. After the close of a challenging and historic year, we’re taking a look at the biggest biotech developments to watch in 2021 and beyond that can help us meet these goals.

The standout theme in agricultural investment is that all tech developments must build security and resilience into our food systems. Current environmental trajectories threaten our food systems’ ability to nurture human health. The task of feeding a growing global population in ways that don’t cause further damage to the planet is a monumental challenge. Meanwhile, the pandemic has highlighted serious fissures in our supply chains, and reminded us that the climate crisis does not go on standby during a global public health crisis. We are hopeful that a panoply of agricultural innovations will help ameliorate these threats, when we address them with adequate investment and global attention.

Security and resilience-building strategies, technologies, and services

Abu Dhabi presents an interesting case and a signal of the times. The capital of the United Arab Emirates has scarce access to water and only a nascent domestic farming industry. Its grocery stores are stocked with grains and meat from far-flung places like South America, New Zealand and Australia. The UAE imports 85% of its food, and the country — including its capital — is vulnerable to global supply shortages and price surges[1]. That’s why a sovereign wealth fund from Abu Dhabi recently bought a major stake of the agricultural giant Louis Dreyfus to improve its food security. As the climate warms, these kinds of protective measures will only become more important for similarly vulnerable countries around the world.

Vertical farming is a growing tech space that is responding to this trend. Singapore, for example, has the goal of growing 30% of its food indoors by 2030[2]. Leaps’ portfolio company Unfold — co-founded with Temasek — is innovating germplasm of a variety of nutritious vegetables to be grown in vertical farms. Not only does this bring production into the communities where produce is eaten — the whole process requires a fraction of the water, land, and inputs used in conventional agriculture. Locally grown produce reduces the amount of time and resources that go into shipping vegetables from growers to eaters. By optimizing breeding for vertical farming, Unfold aims to elevate vertical farming, expanding beyond growing leafy greens to crops like tomatoes, peppers, and even berries.

Apollo Agriculture is a tech company based in Kenya that empowers farmers to grow quality food for their communities with increased productivity and less risk of crop failure. They do this by using satellite data and machine learning alongside traditional farmer needs such as financing, farm inputs, advice, insurance, and market access. Leaps invested in Apollo because we believe it is vital to build new business models that promote sustainable food production alongside sustainable financial returns for farmers in a warming world.

Towards regenerative agriculture at scale

All eyes are on regenerative agriculture, a broad set of farming practices that can help restore soil biodiversity and soil health, which among other things, is good for drawing down carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and improving the water cycle. Regenerative agriculture practices include no or low-till farming, planting cover crops, compost and manure to restore the plant/soil microbiome, prescriptively applying water to maximize plant and soil absorption while minimizing evaporation or topsoil runoff, as well as managing grazing for improved plant growth and soil carbon storage. However, regenerative agriculture has tended to be financially volatile, so innovations that can help farmers practice regenerative agriculture at scale hold enormous promise. That is part of the reason why Bayer announced a large scale carbon sequestration initiative in July of 2020.

Similarly, Covercress is a Leaps portfolio company that allows US Midwestern farmers to protect their soils from the erosion that usually takes place in gap seasons between when corn and soybeans are planted. By planting a modified version of the pennycress crop in those periods, farmers can grow proteinaceous and oil-producing plants when the only available alternative is to watch their soil’s health degrade.

Furthermore, Leaps has invested in Oerth Bio, which takes a therapeutic approach to protecting crop health while reducing environmental impact. Plants contain a natural system to degrade proteins that are threatening or no longer needed. Oerth Bio uses a proprietary tech platform to hijack this natural machinery and engineer it to degrade proteins in a targeted way, which helps to promote a cleaner, healthier, more abundant food system.

C3 to C4 photosynthesis

Photosynthesis is the process that plants use to convert the sun’s energy into carbohydrates, and thereby feed themselves in order to grow. There are a few different kinds of photosynthesizing plants, including what are called C3 and C4 plants. C3 are the most common, comprising roughly 85% of plants. When compared to C4 plants, they grow slowly. Corn, for example, is a C4 plant, and it grows much faster than rice, a C3 plant.

Now here’s the breakthrough potential: what if we could engineer less efficient C3 plants to grow with the cost-effectiveness and greater productivity of C4 plants? This is a hard engineering problem — one of the grand challenges of agriculture — which some charitable initiatives are working on, all in the name of improving the efficiency of how we grow our crops. An international research collaboration has successfully transferred some of the photosynthetic machinery of corn into rice in order to achieve higher-yielding rice varieties that use less water as they grow, but much work remains to be done[3]. This is an area we are avidly following, with the hope that scaling such a breakthrough could have a tremendous impact on ending hunger and maximizing the potential of existing cropland.

We are hopeful that, with enough time and investment, several of these breakthrough ideas will materialize and scale. However, even if that only happens with one, it will still be a huge leap forward for the resilience of our food systems and humanity as a whole. Here’s to an abundant and nourishing 2021, and beyond.