Monsanto Co. and Pairwise Plants have entered into an exclusive collaboration in which the California agricultural startup will work with the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant on gene-editing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and canola crops.
The deal includes a $100-million Monsanto contribution 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, recently co-led with Deerfield Management a $25-million Series A financing round for Pairwise, and the two investors also are minority shareholders.
Pairwise also plans to develop its own new crop varieties while collaborating with other agriculture and consumer food companies.
This new collaboration will use a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, which allows researchers to quickly and accurately pinpoint areas inside the genome of crops such as corn, soybeans, strawberries or apples. The tool can then manipulate DNA to make the crops or produce sweeter or more flavorful, have an extended shelf life, or increase their tolerance to drought or floods.
Tom Adams, who has been Monsanto's vice president of global biotechnology but will now become Pairwise's new CEO, told Business Insider the two companies want be the first to get produce made using CRIPSR into the U.S. marketplace in the next five to 10 years. The publication said he hinted that the first item could be strawberries or some other fruit.
“My co-founders and I believe the technologies we have each been developing can have a profound impact in plant agriculture and will speed innovation that is badly needed to feed a growing population amid challenging conditions created by a changing climate,” said J. Keith Joung, Pairwise's founder.
The impact on the global food supply could be immense if this technology works as many hope. Having a year-round supply of strawberries and other produce items that are flavorful, last longer and are reasonably priced would be an asset to any producer, distributor or retailer.
People who are increasingly consuming more fresher fruits and vegetables would likely eat even more if they could get items that meet some or all of these criteria — benefiting retailers through increased sales. And with about 40% of the food produced every year in the U.S. thrown away, totaling an estimated $200 billion, CRISPR could potentially cut down on waste — an area of focus for socially minded consumers, manufacturers and supermarkets.
Still, it's important to move cautiously on this technology and the long-term benefits it could bring. While the technology appears to be moving along, it's obviously far from being used if current projections are five to 10 years to market.
A potential challenge for manufacturers and retailers in selling produce made using CRISPR could be public concern. The Pew Research Center has found, for example, that nearly 40% of Americans think genetically modified organisms are unhealthy, according to The Washington Post. They may not see gene editing in the same negative light, but manufacturers or growers considering using CRISPR should take that into account going forward.
If this collaboration can do what the companies promise, the gene-edited products are acceptable, cost-effective and accompanied by accurate and accessible information and outreach — and consumers don't see any unacceptable problems — CRISPR-produced crops, vegetables and fruits may have a promising future.