Discover more from Pale blue dot: the newsletter
We need to outsmart our changing climate. Is plant genetics the answer?
Why we invested in Phytoform
💡 We’ve published our latest public research Notion on coffee and cocoa, read more to find out what happens when we push our existing crops to their limits.
Take a look at the bottom of your fridge. Do you see any soft carrots, a mushy tomato, or maybe a sprouting potato lurking at the back of your vegetable drawers?
These might be due to more than just poor meal planning. Many vegetables have traits which if not perfectly handled (farmed, packaged, and transported) can make them more vulnerable to wastage. In the UK alone, almost half of the potatoes bought every year are wasted - that’s almost 6 million potatoes every single day! This is usually just because of aesthetic changes: they've sprouted, softened, gone green, or wrinkled.
And it’s not just food waste that’s the problem. There’s another invisible issue that reduces the global food supply, and is going to get worse with climate change: food losses.
More food will be lost due to climate change
‘Food waste’ is generally understood as consumers throwing food away, but the problem across the supply chain is food loss. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States) currently estimates up to 14% of food globally is ‘lost’. This means it’s thrown out before it even reaches retailers, or is seen by consumers.
Food loss can happen because of infestations, extreme weather risks, or diseases - and climate change is set to exacerbate these losses. Drought and heat will increase losses by up to 10%, and crop pest damage will increase by 50% in the next few years. Already two billion people across the world lack regular access to sufficient food, and the climate crisis is going to make this worse, with lower yields and lower nutrition in the food supply.
Soil quality is also rapidly declining - from erosion, salinity, and nutrient loss - largely due to intensive (and sometimes inefficient) agricultural practices. These changes are all happening so fast, that it is practically impossible for plant evolution to keep up on a global scale. Unhelpfully, our global population is also growing - predicted to grow from 7.3 billion today to 8.5 billion by just 2030. As we wrote previously, we urgently need more solutions that will reduce pressure on our fragile food supply.
Keeping up with climate change
Improving our crop’s resilience to climate change is an essential next step. We also need to mitigate against further damage from inefficient agricultural practices, and Phytoform is looking to do both.
Phytoform co-founders Nicolas Kral and William Pelton met while studying at Imperial University. They founded Phytoform - a ‘crop improvement platform’ to apply machine learning to understand plant genetics, and then use genome editing to create more advanced and climate-resilient crops. We were lucky to be introduced to Phytoform by the founder of LabGenius, James Field, and we invested in Phytoform in the summer of 2020.
But how exactly does it work?
Phytoform applies machine learning to rapidly understand how DNA sequences link to function (asking ‘which DNA sequences are responsible for which outcome?’). They then use CRISPR to “cut out certain bits of DNA in order to control traits” - crucially only introducing minimal and very targeted edits into crop genomes.
Machine learning is used to understand the vast potential of DNA variation, across a wide variety of crops, at scale and in a controlled manner: compressing decades of scientific research into months and years. ‘Advanced crops’ allow us to speed up the natural development of plants - something that is urgently needed to create climate-resilient crops.
Wait, isn't this just genetically modified crops?
Nope. The difference between genetically (GM) modified crops and those altered by Phytoform’s technology lies in the traits being introduced. Phytoform uses what Wired terms ‘nature’s own tool’, using CRISPR because it can “snip out undesirable traits and replaces them with better ones” and harnessing the plants own DNA repair machinery. This is not GMO because it does not have to use foreign DNA and only makes minimal edits.
If CRISPR, and the idea of snipping plants, still sounds worrying - that might be because the ‘appeal to nature’ rhetoric has filtered into modern discourse, encouraging us to selectively equate any new innovations with being ‘bad’, and ‘natural’ with being good (this in itself is a contentious term: what is ‘natural’? Not wearing glasses? Not taking medicine? Using charcoal instead of fluoride for our teeth? How do we define it?).
The other question is, within the realm of crops, can we even be sure that the things we hold up as ‘natural’ are truly unaltered? Keith Edmisten, a cotton and industrial hemp specialist at North Carolina State University said to Successful Farmer: "We’ve genetically modified all the crops we grow. Even with traditional breeding, you’re genetically modifying crops" - the difference is the speed and accuracy with which we are now able to do it, and whether you stay within the same plant. Harry Klee - a tomato expert at the University of Florida - puts it bluntly in Wired: “there isn’t a single crop that I know of in your produce aisle that is not drastically modified from what is out there in the wild.” We have always tried to improve and protect crops, but now we can use ‘nature’s own tools’ and do it with data-driven precision.
Beating climate change with science
We don’t have time to waste if we want to keep pace with the human-caused changes to the climate. The magic of using machine learning with CRISPR is that it allows for a meticulous solution, with higher precision, better outcomes and more control: keeping pace with climate change and enabling plants to stay nutritious and resilient.
In early 2022, Phytoform will bring their first crop variety to market with the goal of reducing food loss, and they are also developing a novel trait to help reduce losses and waste in the fresh potato industry. With their platform, they can evolve millions of genetic sequences, allowing them to target the really large agricultural problems like climate change resilience, food loss and crop diversity in the supply chain, all while reducing the net emissions from the agricultural sector. Humans have rapidly expedited changes in climate, we can now use human innovation to both make sure we can maintain our food supply and reverse those changes.
Also, Phytoform are hiring! Check out their latest roles here.
💡 What happens when we push our existing crops to their limits? Check out our latest public Notion on coffee and cocoa to find out.