Interview: Bananas for sustainable Agri-Tech

Global hunger and food insecurity are major challenges in a growing global village of over 8 billion citizens. Major contributors to this problem include farming practice, farm-to-fork efficiency, and distribution. On top of that, expanding populations in equatorial regions of Africa and Latin America are consuming larger, more nutritious diets. So making sure their crops can survive and thrive in an era of climate change will be key.

This is the premise of Tropic Biosciences, an Emerald portfolio company. Tropic develops gene editing solutions for plants and animals, with the aim of increasing yields and disease resistance. Although it focuses on three crops in particular—banana, coffee and rice—it has licensed its technology for use in a wider variety of organisms, including other plants, animals and even for use in human therapeutic applications.

In this interview, Emerald Partner Neil Cameron speaks with Tropic CEO Gilad Gershon about Tropic’s mission, the difference between GMO and gene editing, why Tropic works with bananas and what the future may hold.

Neil: How would you describe the core mission of Tropic?

Gilad: The heart of Tropic is really a seeds company. Advances in gene editing—especially the invention of CRISPR—are transforming agriculture. The fruits of these innovations need to reach people in the Global South, where diets are considerably different than in the West. Here in the West, massive companies roll out attractive new strains of corn and soy on a regular basis. But we will not fix global food inequities by pumping more investment into the West’s favorite crops. At Tropic, we recognize that there is a striking lack of solutions to address this demand and we want to fix that.

Neil: The phrase “genetically modified organism” (GMO) has become a lightning rod for stakeholders across the spectrum, from policymakers to the general public. How do you navigate these concerns? Are you making GMOs?

Gilad: There are a lot of misconceptions that need to be unpacked. First of all, GMO is a regulatory term that encompasses what the scientific community typically refers to as “transgenic” organisms: genomes into which a gene from a different species has been introduced. An example is a strawberry that is given a gene from a flounder to make it resistant to cold. Governments around the world have placed significant restrictions on such products and they’re not what we’re making at Tropic.

Instead, we’re editing genes already present within an organism to elicit a change in how those genes are expressed. These changes may be quite small, but the effect could be large. We see these kinds of changes all the time as a result of evolution by natural selection.

Because the technology to advance this kind of gene editing is relatively new, there are few regulatory frameworks in place to address it, and governments have typically welcomed products which are genetically modified in this way. For instance, it took the Philippine government five months to approve one of our rice products; it took them 20 years, on the other hand, to approve Golden Rice, a GMO.

Tropic founders Gilad Gershon and Dr Eyal Maori. Image credit: Tropic

Neil: Tell us about your product mix. Why focus on banana, rice and coffee?

Gilad: These crops share a few important characteristics. First of all, they are extremely important globally. Bananas are the most consumed fruit. Rice is the most consumed staple crop. Coffee is one of the most extensively traded commodities worldwide. If you’re looking to scale, it’s hard to do better than those three.

Second, there is little by way of pre-existing patent protection for the most widely grown varieties of these crops. This is in contrast to big Western products like corn. If you want to work with corn, you either have to purchase a license from the big developers—which is economically challenging—or work with the ancestral strains that were common decades ago. This is like trying to install the fanciest modern engine into a 2001 Mazda Miata. Very few would go for it.

Third—and this is particularly the case for bananas—the market is relatively consolidated, so you don’t need to stretch yourself thin working with a million small growers. Finally—and again, this is a particular problem with bananas—there is virtually no genetic diversity, so there’s no way to breed your way to a new and improved strain. Gene editing is really the only option you have to help bananas overcome the challenges they face.

Neil: Can you get into those challenges a bit? How exactly are you helping the banana market?

Gilad: We deliver delayed ripening and slower browning. This helps extend the viable life of the banana from the field to the plate, preventing huge amounts of spoiled bananas from going to waste. We also offer disease resistance. Two types of fungi, Panama Disease and Black Sigatoka Disease, can wreak havoc on growers. Panama Disease is spread by contact with infected soil and will wipe out entire plantations. Black Sigatoka infects leaves, and many growers will spray their fungicide on their fields several times a month in order to ward it off. Our edited bananas can resist both of these diseases, an accomplishment that could increase resilience across the entire banana market.

Neil: Let’s look into the future for a moment. How do you see Tropic advancing at the forefront of gene editing technology?

Gilad: When we think about our strategy, it’s all about how to capture the most value. Working with bananas, for instance, is incredibly difficult—we really had to chip through stone to crack the banana code. We’re always happy to see our scientists’ discoveries help as many people as possible, but the work we’ve put in on markets like banana is something we’d like to own.

When it comes to other crops, animals or even in human therapy, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t license our technology to enable others, just as we did with the Corteva deal. These kinds of partnerships can take place just as we at Tropic continue to focus on the spaces where the need is greatest, where the “seed bank” is barest.