Even as shoppers increase consumption of healthier, fresher offerings in their diets, a small North Carolina company is working to remove some of the obstacles in fruits and vegetables that discourage many other people from eating them.
Pairwise, a two-year-old food startup, is tapping into the CRISPR gene-editing technology to change the DNA of a produce item by removing the bitterness from a nutrient-dense green, the seeds from the outside of a blackberry or the pit in a cherry.
For Pairwise, the thinking is by removing these hurdles consumers would be more likely to eat the food. If the greens taste better, people would be be more likely to eat more salad, getting additional calcium, vitamins and fiber. Produce that was once awkward to eat in public, like a cherry, becomes a more enticing option. And children may be more likely to embrace a seedless berry in their school lunchbox.
"We think if the produce department had more innovation, it would certainly spark some more interest" in fruits and vegetables, said Heather Hudson, head of collaboration, at Pairwise.
A 2017 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 12.2% of American adults ate their recommended daily dose of fruit in 2015, and only 9.3% ate the suggested amount of vegetables that year. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise adults to eat the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily.
Hudson, who oversees vegetables at Pairwise, said the company is optimistic it can bring its first leafy green to market as early as 2022 due to the fact greens grow more quickly.
Fruits take longer because they must wait several years for the tree or bush to grow and then additional time to scale up production. Ryan Rapp, head of product discovery who handles fruits at the company, said it may not be until 2023 when seedless blackberries hit the market and several years later for cherries because it takes more time for the tree to develop.
Rapp and Hudson are both quick to defend the company's use of CRISPR, a process where they remove or change the sequence of the genome so a specific trait doesn't appear or one they want is more pronounced. Unlike genetic modification where material is added to the plant, Pairwise is making changes to what is already there.
"Consumers want to know where their food is grown and how it is produced, and we are embracing that. As long as we stick to our values and transparency and being open with them, I think consumers are going to love this."
Head of product discovery, Pairwise
GMO plants have long been vilified by critics skeptical about the safety of these crops in everyday foods and in the environment in which they grow. Agribusiness companies that make big money creating these seeds also have been criticized for being too secretive about the work they were doing with consumers.
Pairwise is taking a different tack, vowing to share how its food is grown, how it is made and what genes are influenced to create the desired outcome.
"Consumers want to know where their food is grown and how it is produced, and we are embracing that," Rapp said. "As long as we stick to our values and transparency and being open with them, I think consumers are going to love this."
Rapp added unlike GMOs created largely to increase production for farmers or to enable them to withstand unwanted diseases or pests, the changes Pairwise is making to food is done with the consumer in mind.
"In the older days when we were working on corn and other traits, it was more for the farmer and a bit more abstract on how it was benefiting the consumer," he said. "They'll get an appreciation for what [Pairwise is] opening up for them because they see how it's benefiting them."
To fund its research, the company has looked to at least one unexpected place: big agribusiness.
In 2018, Pairwise reached a deal with Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, where the St. Louis company invested $100 million to bolster Pairwise's intellectual property in row crop applications and the opportunity to develop for commercial use any products emerging from the collaboration. Monsanto Growth Ventures, the company's VC arm, also co-led with Deerfield Management, a $25-million Series A financing round for Pairwise. Rapp said Pairwise is exploring additional funding to facilitate its growth.
Pairwise has yet to commercialize a product, but the company is already considering what it will work on next. After blackberries, it could explore other berries with seeds like raspberries or strawberries or fruits with pits like a peach or apricot. Hudson said it could even look at altering flavor profiles to create something like a spicy tomato or another produce offering that could drive sales in a specific category and across the produce space overall.
"If we can find a way to remove a barrier from consumption," Hudson said. "It's absolutely on the table."