As many seek new approaches and tangible mechanisms to address the effects of climate change in agriculture, some are opting for solutions that involve an increased reliance on biotechnology. In September of 2022, President Biden issued the Executive Order (EO) on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure America Bioeconomy (EO 14091).
The goal of the EO is to “ease a path to market for a range of innovative products using synthetic biology or genome editing….” in order to “foster innovative solutions for climate change, energy, food security, and agriculture.” In addition to increasing funding for biotechnology and biomanufacturing, the EO challenges various executive entities, including the Department of Agriculture, to identify ways in which to expand the use of biotechnology.
For a number of years, we have tracked the use of genetic engineering and synthetic biology (synbio) to develop gene-edited microbes for agricultural use outside of the plant. These include microbial fertilizers, soil amendments, insecticides, crop stimulants, and nitrogen-fixing products, ushering in a new lexicon with terms such as bioinsecticide, biofungicide, biofertilizer, biostimulant, plant growth regulator, and biorational. These products can be incorporated directly into soil or applied as seed coatings prior to planting.
According to the Business Research Company, the global agricultural biologics market grew from $10.52 billion in 2022 to $12.11 billion in 2023, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.2%, and is anticipated to continue its expansion. All of this begs the question: Do we really want to depend on the companies and technologies that helped to degrade agricultural lands to provide the solution?
Below are brief overviews of a number of companies that are developing agricultural biologics.
Perhaps the first company involved in the engineering of a microbial product for agriculture was Bayer CropScience, which launched Poncho/VOTiVO, a combination insecticide and biological seed treatment, first for corn in 2011 and then for soy and cotton in 2012. In 2018, as a result of Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto and the need to divest some of its agriculture assets, the company sold its seed treatment products, including the Poncho and VOTiVO brands, to BASF.
Joyn Bio (Joyn) is a joint venture between Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks (Ginkgo). Joyn was initially launched in 2017 with the goal of using synthetic biology to create nitrogen-fixing microbes and other microbial agriculture solutions. The company’s initial focus has been on cereal crops: corn, wheat and rice. In October 2022, Gingko announced that it had “closed” the deal with Bayer, strengthening their strategic partnership, expanding Ginkgo’s Agricultural Biologicals Division, and integrating the nitrogen fixation and R&D assets of Joyn into Ginkgo, including Bayer’s West Sacramento Biologics R&D operations.
Pivot Bio (Pivot) was founded in 2010 with support from the Gates Foundation. From its inception, the goal of Pivot was to engineer and reprogram the DNA of microorganisms to enable them to produce nitrogen. The company has since released two microbial fertilizers that fix atmospheric nitrogen in soil: Proven (2019) and Return 2020. In a 2020 article in Nature Communications, Pivot’s Proven microbial fertilizer was identified as one of six synthetic biology products that had the potential to change the world.
Founded in 2016, Boost Biomes (Boost) uses its understanding of microbial interactions and proprietary platform to engineer novel microbial products in order to improve the quality and yield of crops. According to the company’s website, their initial focus has been on products that reduce crop loss to fungal pests, both in the field and post-harvest. In 2021, Boost announced that it had entered into a development and licensing agreement with IFF’s Health & Biosciences Division to bring microbial fungicides to market.
BioConsortia/The Mosaic Company
Founded in 2014, BioConsortia uses gene editing techniques to create microbial products for agriculture and reduce dependence on traditional chemical nitrogen fertilizers. The company also produces microbial nematicides, fungicides and biostimulants. In 2020, BioConsortia announced that it was partnering with The Mosaic Company to develop and launch nitrogen-fixing products for corn, wheat and other non-legume crops. That partnership was augmented in 2022 with an announcement that the pair would expand their agreement to include the distribution of BioConsortia’s microbial biostimulant BEC69, branded as Zaffre, in Asia .
Valent BioSciences/Sumitomo Chemical
Founded in 1999, Valent BioSciences (Valent) became a subsidiary of Sumitomo Chemical in 2013. The company is using synthetic biology to create a portfolio of “biorational” products to improve agricultural productivity. In 2018, Valent announced the opening of a Biorational Research Center in Libertyville, Illinois. Two years later, Sumimoto announced the establishment of a SynBio Hub at Valent’s Biorational Research Center, furthering the company’s plans to create products using synthetic biology. Valent has a range of products, including growth regulators, bioinsecticides, nematicides and biostimulators.
The Non-GMO Project’s Standard defines all crops and products developed using biotechnology, including new gene-editing techniques, as GMOs. We share this information to further one of the Project’s primary goals of creating greater transparency in the supply chain, ensuring you have the information you need to make the best choices for you, your brand, and your family.
Please note that the information herein is for general informational purposes only and is based on the linked sources above.